Safety on the Internet

A parents guide to the web

Paul Schwartz, teenagers, online, safety

Do you remember the old TV commercial, "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"

Back then, if your children were at home that ad left you with a feeling of comfort, knowing that your children were definitely safe.

But today, the Internet puts the dangers of the real world at your child's fingertips even while they are right upstairs tucked away in their room.

Potential risks posed by the Internet

It's estimated that one in five teens have been solicited for sex online, and therefore serious precautions should be taken to protect your child from the dangers lurking online.

There are also other inadvertent dangers on the internet.  A legitimate search for information might accidentally lead an adolescent to one of the millions of pornographic websites with images and information that can confuse a young person about healthy sexuality and relationships. 

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The web can also offers sites that reinforce and support unhealthy behavior, such as how to hide an eating disorder or self-injurious behavior such as "cutting," as well as sites on drug use and drug-use devices.  There are also many websites promoting self-starvation, mutilation, racism and gambling.

Socialization on the web can be an excellent adjunct for the healthy development of social skills in adolescence, but it also can be an impediment.

One-on-one or group face-to-face communication is often being eclipsed by the establishment of relationships and friendships on the internet. Socially-anxious teens may substitute cyberfriends as an alternative to real life friends and  could result in them creating any image they choose for themselves without the benefit of social feedback. 

Additionally, "cyberbulling" is an increasing problem, committed by a child's peers spreading rumors or insults by means of text messages, e-mails, or social media posts that contain embarrassing information, pictures or videos.

What can parents do?

The digital world is evolving on the daily basis, presenting a challenge for parents to keep up. But you need to try!

Technologically, today's children and adolescents are usually two steps ahead of parents. But there are tracking programs and sophisticated filters that can be placed on your child's computer to monitor what they do online and block access to certain web sites.  

Engage in conversations with your kids about social media sites. Go online with your adolescent and have them explain how to use apps you may not understand or have never heard of. Adolescents and their parents are often perceived as living in parallel universes. Having your adolescent teach you about cyberspace is an opportunity for the two of you to recognize what the other has to offer.

Talk to other parents, relatives and friends. Share and learn from each other about cyber safety and new apps, and discuss what your kids are doing online.

Reach out to your school's technology team who will be able to provide additional advice on how to protect your children online while at home.
And, it goes without saying, attention to a teen's online activity must include the use of their smartphone.

Screen names that reveal age, gender, or hometown make it easier for predators and bullies to target minors online.

Teach kids to be choosy

Know who your child talks to online. Review their buddy list. Do they really know everyone, or are some buddies "friends of friends?" Have them remove anyone they do not know in person.

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Tell them not to exchange personal information like phone numbers, addresses, best friends' names, or pictures, as well as to never make plans to meet a stranger in person - EVER - despite how well they might think they know the person via the Internet.

Surfing the web without restrictions can mean encountering pop-up ads, viruses, erroneous information, and inappropriate content. Kids must learn to be selective about what they "click" online.

Set some basic rules

Decide on a code of conduct and time limits. Keeping kids safe means setting guidelines about suitable language, content, and behavior. It's important to direct your child to suitable websites and help them critique content.

Help your child think critically about the content they read and see. Encourage them to check facts with multiple sources before including them in a school report. Teach them to distinguish between user-generated content and that of reputable institutions.

If you wouldn't do it face-to-face, don't do it online. Just because you feel protected by the seeming anonymity the Internet, children must be reminded that online is still the real world, and poor decisions or risky behavior can carry the same consequences.

Paul Schwartz Ph.D. is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. He has been writing columns about child behavior for Hudson Valley Parent for more than a decade.