We’ve written before about general guidelines to keep teens and pre teens safe when using the internet and social media, including a Social Media Handbook for Parents. This week we thought we’d do a deeper dive on what parents can watch for and kids can do to make sure they are not opening themselves up to being stalked, harassed, bullied or targeted by predators.
Cyber stalkers tend to be very computer savvy, and will use a variety of methods to try to gain your child’s trust if she becomes a target. As a parent, you can use these guidelines to ensure that your kids practice safe web surfing and communication:
Educate yourself – Unless you have at least a basic understanding of what social networks do, and what sites your son or daughter is going to visit, you’ll be hard pressed to help with the safety factor. Fortunately, the web has vast resources, including posts like this one and the Parent Resources section of our website, that can help you get up to speed on the basics.
Communicate – The process of educating your child about internet safety is not a one time event. Get used to talking to him early, before he gets immersed in online activity and thinks he knows it all. Keep up the conversation as his interests change and as popular sites and networks change.
Decide which sites and networks are age-appropriate – First of all, follow the posted age rules. The standard age limit for most networks is 13 years old, as dictated by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Take advantage of COPPA – it exists to give extra privacy protection to minors (and recourse for parents), not to keep them from having fun. Second, don’t spend too much time worrying what your kid’s friends are doing. Just because another 10 year old is using Instagram, doesn’t mean your 10 year old should be. The fact that you’re reading this means you’re probably ahead of most parents already.
Know what connects – Computers and cell phones are not the only devices with internet connections. Gaming consoles and handhelds as well as iPods also can have an internet connection, and allow communication between two or more people.
Privacy settings – Most sites do not want users to be overly vulnerable, but do want access to as much of your information and activity as possible, so default privacy settings are usually set to public. It’s usually pretty straightforward set of clicks to change accounts to private (Google it if you have to), and we almost always recommend doing so.
Chat rooms – Kids, or people for that matter, don’t go to chat rooms to communicate with existing friends. They generally go to meet new people, or talk to new people about an area of common interest such as online gaming or other interests. Chat rooms are popular with predators because finding a common interest can be a first step in establishing trust with their prey, who may end up being your child.
The stranger factor – Just as you wouldn’t want your child talking to strangers in real life, strongly caution against them doing it online. There is no way to be 100% certain that the 14-year-old girl met on line is actually 14 years old, or a girl.
Photos – Selfies (self-taken photos) are all the rage. A cursory glance at Instagram would lead you to believe that teenagers have never had more fun. Posting pictures of yourself online or on a social network has never been easier. Unfortunately, many online predators are looking for attractive young people to stalk. Encourage kids not to post too many pictures. Review privacy settings with your kids so that pictures are visible to friends only, buy keep in mind that if a friend tags or shares your child’s pictures, they may become visible to other users.
Avoid divulging location (even unknowingly) – Comments about where you are or where you are going, checkins on location-enabled apps such as foursquare or Facebook, geotagged photos on Instagram or even proudly mentioning which school you go to can all give information to an unwanted stalker.
Periodically check for yourself – Even if you’ve given your child the best possible training on staying safe online, it makes sense to check for yourself once in a while, and more often the younger the user is. Check phones and computers for new apps and networks, and recheck privacy setting on existing sites.
Bullying strategy – What do you expect your child to do if he is bullied online, or feels threatened? Stress often that you want to hear about it, and will be on his side. Your youngster quietly suffering is not the answer.
Most of the above apply to minors of any age. For younger kids, who may not be on full featured social networks but are using the web or apps, some extra layers of security might make sense for your family.
For younger kids:
Computers and devices in common areas only – Until you are absolutely sure of your child’s maturity level and decision making skills, keep computers and phones in common areas of the home where you can supervise, not behind bedroom doors. In terms of phones, this is especially true at night, when a phone in the bedroom can also lead to sleep loss.
Use a family email address – If you have been thinking about your child’s future, you probably secured an email address reflecting their name at an early age. Be careful not to let them use it too early, especially when signing up for online sites or services. A family email address that you can easily check is a better option.
Messages from strangers – These should be ignored at all times. Unless your child gave a person her email address, she shouldn’t get a mystery message.
Downloads/attachments – If your child receives an email with an attachment, she shouldn’t open it, even if the email looks like it came from an acquaintance. The friend’s account might have been hacked and any attachment may contain a virus, pornographic spam or be a phishing attempt. Even if she believes the sender and attachment are legit, she should ask you before opening it.
The internet changes quickly, and we would be remiss in implying that any set of safeguards is foolproof. Following the above guidelines, combined with an open line of ongoing communication between kids and parents, is the best path to online safety for minors.
Contact ThirdParent any time for help and resources for monitoring teen internet activity.