Before you invest big bucks on the latest computer for your child, it is important to first understand the potential dangers that lurk there, and how to help keep your child safe from pornography, predators and other Internet dangers.
When kids rip the wrapping paper off the box and a new computer emerges, it's all smiles.
But before you set up that new computer and head for the Web, parents and guardians should already have a plan for managing online access. Although the Internet provides tremendous access to educational resources for children, it also harbors lurking dangers, including sexual offenders who use the Internet to mask their identities and cultivate relationships directly with children.
Just as you teach your child how to confront dangers in the real world, you need to prepare them for life in the online world. You wouldn't think of letting your child rollerblade for the first time without safety pads, and you wouldn't dream of letting him or her give out your home phone number to someone they didn't know on the street.
Yet many parents and guardians set up a home computer without considering online safety basics. Keep your gift-giving memories happy and your child safer. In the sections that follow, you'll find practical steps and tips from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
The reality is that a computer opens up your home to the world. "Although the Internet offers many benefits to youth, it gives offenders access to children when they are supposedly 'safe' at home," said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
One in five children is sexually solicited online, according to Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth, issued by NCMEC, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. Researchers talked to 1,501 children ages 10-17 and published their results in June 2000. They found that 70 percent of inappropriate solicitations of children occur while a child is using a home computer. Yet only 25 percent of children receiving a sexual solicitation told a parent or guardian.
Parents and guardians of girls should be especially concerned. Two-thirds of these solicitations are aimed at teen girls. Your daughter may not associate the seemingly friendly, flattering, and supportive older guys online with someone who means her harm. And she may not think it can happen to her.
Like many other parents or guardians you may think you can keep your children safer from online threats by telling them to avoid "strangers." But using the word "stranger" with a child does not carry the impact you might think, said McBride.
"Children don't think about a 'stranger' the way a parent does," said McBride. "A child thinks a 'stranger' is someone scary and ugly who they don't know." To a child who may have swapped photos with someone online and spent hours "getting to know" him or her — that person is no longer a "stranger."
"It is important for parents and guardians to be aware of the dangers children may face online," said Christine Loftus with the NetSmartz Workshop, a free online interactive workshop for youth about Internet safety. "These dangers include exposure to inappropriate material, sexual solicitation, harassment, and bullying."
Cyber-bullying can make your child feel miserable and involves children spreading online rumors or gossip about each other. Unlike online solicitation of children where the aggressor seeks to lure the child into inappropriate sexual behavior, cyber-bullying attacks a child directly and can be as emotionally destructive as face-to-face teasing and physical intimidation.
To jolt parents and guardians into action, NCMEC created the "Help Delete Online Predators" campaign in 2004 with the Ad Council, which sent public service ads to more than 28,000 media outlets. A second wave of ads were issued in 2005 targeting teen girls and urging them to hear the message about online predators, "Don't Believe the Type."
You may be tempted to return that newly-purchased computer or to pull the plug on the Internet completely, but experts say that banishing the Internet from your home is not the answer. "That's not going to work because your child has access to computers in so many places," said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Public access can be key to nurturing a safer online environment in your home. NCMEC recommends that you put your family's computer in a public area, such as a family room or living room.
When the computer is in a high-traffic area, parents and guardians are more diligent about checking on its usage. Easy access allows a parent or guardian to monitor activities and how much time children spend online.
Internet filters and blocking software can be helpful tools for parents and guardians, according to McBride. "But just like in the real world, they are still no substitute for a parent's guidance and supervision."
And don't be afraid to ask questions. It's okay to ask who your child is talking to online. After all, you wouldn't allow your child to go to another person's house without knowing who the person is — the same rules apply online. "Your child should have no expectation of privacy on a computer," said McBride. "The computer is not their personal diary."
The point is not to be overbearing and nosey — it's to be as informed about your child's online life as you are about his/her "real" life. You should know who your child has on his/her buddy list. Find out their favorite online hangouts and websites. Set rules and guidelines for what they can and cannot do online.
According to a 2004 study by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) partner ADVO, one in five parents and guardians do not know any Internet codes, passwords, instant message handles or e-mail addresses that their children use online. Less than 5 percent of parents and guardians are familiar with the most commonly used Internet chat abbreviations, like "POS," which stands for "parent over shoulder."
Because parents and guardians may feel like their children are leaps and bounds ahead of them when it comes to technology, they often don't know how to help their children address online safety.
If you're one of those parents or guardians who does not feel confident in the technology arena, Nancy McBride, national safety director for NCMEC, recommends you take a class or read a book to learn the basics. She also suggests that you ask your children to show you what they know about the computer. Use the tutorial as a time to talk about setting some rules for Internet use.
It's also important not to assume that your child knows more than you do. Research by NCMEC for its national public service advertising campaign which talks to teen girls about the risks they can encounter online, found that children viewed themselves as super-surfers online, and were overconfident about their abilities to handle online threats.
"The reality is that your children need your guidance online, just like in the real world," said McBride. "Parents and guardians need to be as knowledgeable of today's online world as they are about the mechanics of crossing a street or driving a car."
Talk with your child before setting up and logging onto his or her new computer. Setting basic rules for Internet access can go a long way toward building a nurturing online environment in your home.
These rules can include when and how often your child may go online, how to keep his or her identity private, not responding to communication that makes them scared, uncomfortable, or confused, talking to a parent or guardian before meeting someone he or she first met online, and respecting the rights of others while online. NetSmartz.org, an interactive, educational safety resource from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), provides safety pledges tailored to a child's age that you can adapt for use with your family.
A fun way to learn safety rules is to visit NetSmartzKids.org. It's a safe Web site loaded with interactive activities, games and music, that teaches the dangers to watch out for online and how to avoid them.
For example, in "Who's Your Friend on the Internet," Nettie and Webster, two NetSmartz characters, introduce children to three mystery guests behind doors on a stage. Two of the voices sound like children. One sounds dangerous. Children are asked to pick which door hides the person who could be their "friend." When all the doors are revealed, children find out that all three voices are the same "WizzyWig" (WizzyWigs are characters representing possible dangers to children online). The activity teaches children that people online may not be who they say they are.
It's also important that you talk with your child about what to do if they find something online that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. You don't want your child or teen to hesitate to come to you about something scary or upsetting because they are afraid that you will pull the plug on their Internet privileges.
Instead, says Christine Loftus from NetSmartz Workshop, show children how to turn off the power switch on the monitor if something such as pornography or an instant message upsets them. Shutting off the monitor enables the child to block the image but does not shut off the computer, and enables you to hit the ON button to look at the screen and find out why your child is upset.
"Emphasize that it's not their fault if they see something that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable." If your child does come to you with something disturbing, report it to the proper authorities, such as your Internet service provider or the CyberTipline.
NetSmartz has developed Internet safety pledges for children of all ages that explain online safety. These common-sense rules can help your child be safer online and ensure that he or she is a good Internet citizen, too!
Below, we feature the pledge for youth in middle and high school. You can download this pledge, as well as pledges for youth in grades K-2 and grades 3-6 at the NetSmartz Workshop. Have your children sign the pledge and then post it near the computer to remind them about online safety rules.
More information is available from 1-800-THE-LOST or NetSmartz.org.
When police officer John Karraker's 13-year-old daughter went online, he thought she was doing her homework and chatting with friends. When he came home to find a phone message from an adult man who was far too old for her, she denied knowing him.
Even though John checked the family computer with the monitoring software he had installed on it, he didn't find anything. Like many children and teens, she had become adept at hiding her electronic footprints. He later found out that his daughter had deleted her chat logs and website history when he questioned her about the call.
Although the parents had talked with their daughter about online safety when they initially installed the computer, they now realized that their warnings had fallen on deaf ears — and that their child was lying to them to protect a man she had met online, who was really a sexual predator.
The man called back, and talked to the girl's mother, whom he initially mistook for the 13-year-old girl. She peppered him with questions and he hung up. Finally, their daughter admitted that she had chatted online with him for an extended period of time and given their family's home phone number to him.
"The experience my daughter had fortunately did not have a tragic outcome, but I have to admit that it was more by luck than by parental intervention," said Karraker in testimony to the U.S. Congress subcommittee dealing with online safety for children in 2002. He urges parents and guardians to educate themselves and their children about online safety.
A/S/L — age, sex, location
BRB — be right back
CYO — see you online
DIKU — do I know you?
F2F — face to face
GMBO — giggling my butt off
HTH — hope this helps
IC — I see
ILU — I love you
JMO — just my opinion
KOL — kiss on lips
L2M — listening to music
LOL — laughing out loud
LTNS — long time no see
LULAB — love you like a brother
LULAS — love you like a sister
MOTOS — member of the opposite sex
N/P — no problem
P911 — my parents are coming!
PA — parent alert
PAL — parents are listening
PANB — parents are nearby
POS — parent over shoulder
QT — cutie
SETE — smiling ear to ear
TAFN — that's all for now
TMI — too much information
WTGP — want to go private
WUF — where are you from?
For a more complete list, download Chat Abbreviations from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.