Focus on the Family

Tech Support for Parents

by Carolyn MacInnes

The camera pans in on his trembling hands.

"She said she was 18…" he whispers – one final, futile effort to convince millions of TV viewers he's not a monster.

But the damage is done. We saw the transcripts of his sexually explicit e-mails to a "teen." We watched him bring her a six pack and a box of condoms. We heard him ask where her parents were.

Shows like NBC's To Catch a Predator simultaneously repulse and rivet us. We can't bear knowing men like this are stalking our kids – but we can't bear not knowing what they're up to. And in the wee hours after the show airs, when we've tossed and turned in the darkness, some of us long to sneak to the basement and rip the Internet cable from its jack.

If only it were that simple. But many people's livelihoods depend on Web access. Schools often require extensive online research. And let's face it, the Internet can be an amazing tool…but only if we're vigilant in our efforts to protect our kids from it's dark underbelly.

If you're feeling a little anxious, wondering how to shield your children in our technology-saturated world, take heart! The articles in this section will detail some crucial concerns and offer suggestions for communicating with your kids about online safety.

Networking Nightmares

In the 50s, it was the malt shop. In the 80's, the roller rink. Today, more and more kids choose the Internet as their primary "hang out." But now, the bullies don't ride up on motorcycles waving their fists; they harass and humiliate others online with crude images and invectives. Predators don't have to lurk in the back alley; they can enter the clubhouse posing as one of the gang. And who needs to smuggle in Playboys? Those shots are nothing compared to the material shoved in front of them on the Web.

Want to know what's really happening in the virtual rec room? Check out some recent statistics:

Parenting Power

As a parent, you may feel overwhelmed by the task before you – but you're far from powerless! Beyond the obvious need to pray relentlessly for your kids,

Be watchful. Set up clear guidelines, or even a contract, concerning your kids' cell or Internet use. Be sure you have their passwords/access to their online pages or communications. Spot check frequently.

Understand technology…and its shortcomings. Know what MySpace or your child's cell phone plan allow him to do. You may find you can limit or disable certain features for added peace of mind. Content blocking software is great, but not foolproof – and certainly no substitute for parental vigilance.

Make the rules fit the child. A younger child or less mature teen may require more regulation online than his siblings or friends. Whether or not it seems "fair," your specialized rules may protect children from stumbling upon situations they're ill-equipped to handle. Remember that emotionally disturbed, socially isolated or depressed kids are more susceptible to predators.

Caution Your Kids

As you begin conversing about Internet use – and setting boundaries – expect indignation. Explain to kids that it isn't them you don't trust…it's all the people in cyberspace that you don't know! Urge them to

Maintain privacy. Tell them not to post personal information, especially facts that would allow someone to track them down. Remind them to limit who can see their posts to real life friends. Urge them never to divulge passwords…even to a best bud.

Maintain integrity. Even "good" kids often check their morals and judgment at the keyboard. While they'd never stroll naked through a stadium, they might not think twice about posting suggestive photos of themselves. Encourage young people to consider how God would react if He came upon their MySpace page or Web site, or if He viewed their communications or surfing practices.

Think about long-term consequences. Reinforce the value of a good reputation. Deleting content from a social networking site may not make it disappear permanently; some pages are actually archived and retrievable! Let teens know that college admissions staff members or potential employers often look kids up online to get a feel for their character. In addition, teens need to realize that the words they write or pictures they post or send of others, even in jest, can leave lasting scars.


1Sinrod, Eric J. "Are Kids Playing It Safe Online?" CNET News.Com. 18 July 2007. 1 Oct. 2007 (http://news.cnet.com/2100-1032_3-6197209.html*).
2"New Study Shows Youth Online Exposed to More Sexual Material and Harassment." Missingkids.Com. 9 Aug. 2006. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 1 Oct. 2007 (http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/NewsEventServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=2529*).
3Olsen, Stefanie. "Growing Concerns Over Cyberbullying." CNET News.Com. 30 Mar. 2007. 1 Oct. 2007 (http://www.cnet.com/4520-13384_1-6721012-1.html?tag=feat.1*).

Cell Phone Rules

Don't just "phone it in" when it comes to guiding and protecting your kids by setting limits on cell phone use.

by Vicki Courtney

Cell phones. We love them, and we hate them. They are easy to love when you find yourself on the side of the road with a flat tire, or when you're trying to track down your daughter and her friend after being separated while shopping in the mall. The love fades when the teenager sitting behind you at the movies won't hang up. Or even worse, one goes off in your purse right smack in the middle of a wedding (guilty as charged)! The cell phone has replaced the home phone, and most teens couldn't recite their top three friends' home numbers if you offered them a cash prize. Their cell phones are their mobile "friend lists" that keep them in touch around the clock with their top one hundred.

Recently, while speaking at an event for Christian middle school and high school girls, I asked the students to think about what one item they each would take with them if they were going to spend time alone on a deserted island. The majority chose the cell phone. It beat out the iPod, laptop computer and, unfortunately, even the Bible.

As parents, it's important for us to understand this technology's appeal, know what it can offer as well as the possible dangers it poses and set limits to guide and protect our kids. Whether your child is begging for a cell phone or has one already, here are some things to consider:

Cell phones are already a permanent fixture in our lives. And soon, the industry standard will be cell phones that consolidate all the teen favorites into one small device. Teens will use their phones to talk, text, receive IMs being sent to their computers, access their music library, surf the Web, check their MySpace and Facebook pages and even post comments and upload pictures and video clips straight to Web sites from their phones. For portability and communicating on the run, the cell phone is the central piece of technology that connects teens to their favorite activities. Best of all, it fits in a back pocket. No wonder kids beg for one of their own.


Uploading Photos and Video

Teach your kids how to protect a good reputation when the eyes of the World Wide Web are watching.

by Vicki Courtney

Imagine that your child grows up and someday assumes the role of a public figure. Maybe your daughter will run for public office or become a professional athlete or a much beloved teacher. Maybe your son will work for a Christian organization or receive a call to serve in full time ministry. And then imagine how your child's dream can be shattered if pictures emerge on the Web that compromise your child's reputation and question his or her character. Not likely, you say? Think again. With the prevalence of digital cameras and camera phones capable of taking unlimited pictures and video clips, all it takes is one momentary lapse in good judgment. Many a fallen beauty queen, American Idol contestant, politician and public figure can attest to damage done by fallout from little-known or forgotten pictures surfacing on the Web — pictures that were never intended for public viewing.

Below, you will find a set of rules that I require my children to abide by when it comes to pictures and video they may upload to the Web. Feel free to edit or adapt these to fit your preferences. I would begin to go over these rules as each of your children enters middle school, and continue to remind them of the rules as the years progress. Even if your child is not yet allowed to participate in social networking sites, it is not too early to begin to talk about the sites. Your kids may still end up appearing in pictures and video taken and posted by others. You may consider even posting the rules somewhere near your computer so they are not easily forgotten.

Photo/Video Rules:

  1. Do not upload pictures or video of yourself or your friends in swimwear, pajamas or anything that exposes too much skin. A rule of thumb is this: Ask yourself what sort of reaction the picture/video in question would get from your pastor, grandmother or father? Also, do not allow others to take or upload pictures or video like the ones described above to the Internet. If someone takes your picture or shoots video of you in inappropriate attire and puts it online, politely explain to the person who took the photo or video that it will have to be removed from the Internet.

    Note to parents:
    It helps if your child gets the speech down so he or she is able to confidently explain to their friends, "My parents will not allow me to be in pictures or video on the Web in my swimsuit, pajamas, etc.") Let me also note here that our sons should not be taking pictures of scantily-clad girls at the beach, lake party, or poolside, much less uploading them to the Web. There are plenty of girls who are willing to smile for the camera, but this does not make it acceptable to snap their pictures.
  2. Do not take or upload pictures or video of people without their permission. And always use good judgment. As the popularity of online photo albums and sites like YouTube increases, we will see more and more lawsuits brought by people who were either photographed or video-taped against their will or who simply did not want their images posted publicly to the Web. Never take pictures or video of strangers. If you have any doubt at all about whether your friends would approve of your posting pictures or video of them on the Web, ask them first.
  3. Do not engage in crude behavior. There are plenty of decent pictures and video clips to be shot, so make sure you never participate in such useless and ridiculous antics as urinating in public, taking pictures or video or having a picture or video taken while on the toilet, grabbing someone's private parts, staring down someone's pants or blouse, smashing your cleavage together, bending over for the camera, public displays of affection (making out, etc.), and other behaviors that would fall into this category.

    Note to parents: All of the above, I mention in detail because I witnessed them firsthand in my research, and many of the individuals who displayed the above behaviors were church kids.
  4. Use the privacy setting when uploading your pictures or video to an album. Privacy settings are usually available, and this will limit the people who can view your photos and video to your immediate friend list.
  5. Do not allow inappropriate comments to be posted by others about your pictures. If you find them, delete the comments immediately. For example, my daughter had a picture in one of her albums and one of her friends came on and commented about how busty she looked in the shirt she was wearing. Not appropriate, especially given the fact that guys on her friend list had the ability to rifle through her photo albums. The picture had to go.
  6. Make sure your photos and video will meet the approval of Mom, Dad, and above all, God. Keep in mind that for your own protection, your parents will be spot-checking your photos, video clips, friend list and their photos and video, as well as your other online information from time to time. If we happen to find evidence that you are not following our rules, you will no longer be allowed to use the digital camera or post pictures to the Web. This level of accountability is not to control you, but to keep you and your reputation safe as you grow and mature in exercising good judgment on your own.

As the ability to take pictures and streaming video (even with cell phones) becomes standard, it is more important than ever to teach our children to behave responsibly when taking or posing for pictures and video. The more outlandishly a person behaves in front of the camera, the more likely the footage will surface in the form of a picture in someone else's online album or YouTube video clip. And the last time I checked, the online community numbered over 900 million "members." Talk about incentive to behave!


Monitoring Internet Activity

Here's how monitoring software can help keep your children safe online.

by Vicki Courtney

Many parents install some sort of safety filter on their computers, but few take the extra step of installing monitoring software. Monitoring software is different than a safety filter in that it actually tracks keystrokes and takes screenshots (pictures) of Internet activity on the computer.

The software I personally use cost me just under $100 and has no monthly payment associated with it. It has more than paid for itself. It offers me the ability to view my children's IM conversations, emails and some (not all) postings made on the social networking sites. Monitoring software records and e-mails actual transcripts of IM conversations and emails directly to my inbox.

My intent is not to stalk my children's every online movement, but to make sure my kids are using the technology responsibly. In addition to receiving transcripts of IM conversations, my monitoring software emails a daily report to me of exactly which sites have been accessed, what time they were accessed and how much time was spent on each site. If I see sites that I am not familiar with or appear inappropriate, I click through to check them out further.

A word of warning that monitoring software is controversial and many people are of the mindset that it is an invasion of privacy to use it. It always amazes me when doing radio and TV interviews on the topic of monitoring software, how often hosts ask if I feel that I am invading my children's privacy by monitoring their online activity. My answer is always the same: "One in five kids ages 10 to 17 years has been solicited for sex online and one in 33 has been aggressively solicited, including the predator attempting to set up a meeting with the child in person. In addition, law enforcement officers estimate that as many as 50,000 sexual predators are on the Web at any given time." Considering this information, it is irresponsible for parents not to monitor where their kids are going online, with whom they are talking and what they are saying. And you can rest assured that any number of predators is trolling the Web at any given time who are more than happy to communicate with your child, especially if they sense parents are disengaged or absent. A sobering thought, but in many cases, an accurate one.

All three of my teens know that there is monitoring software installed on our home computers. If you choose to use monitoring software, my personal philosophy is that it is appropriate to tell your children that you will be monitoring their online activity from time to time. Of course, there are exceptions to this policy of parental disclosure, such as when a parent has a reason to believe that their child may be involved in dangerous behaviors. An example would be a child that a parent suspects is drinking, doing drugs, or could be at risk for suicide. It is a parent's responsibility to not only intercede to protect this child from harming himself or herself, but to head the problem off at the pass before he/she harms others. It is also a good idea to install the software when your children are young. My oldest son was about 14 years of age when I installed the monitoring software. When I informed him of my intent, he gave me the hardest time. He harassed me about it for several years and told me that he felt like I was spying on his every move. I continued to reassure him that while I trusted him, I did not necessarily trust others who were making contact with him from the outside. I further reminded him that I was only spot-checking from time to time and not stalking his every move. By the time he entered his senior year in high school, I no longer felt the need to even spot check his online activity. He had his own laptop at that point and was preparing to leave for college, so it seemed like the right time to cut him loose.

His younger sister, on the other hand, was 12 years of age when I installed the monitoring software, and she was much more accepting of my explanation. Because I installed it at the front end of her Internet activity, she and her younger brother have known no other way of life. In fact, when she was about 14 years old, I intercepted an IM conversation she was having with her older brother that caused me to laugh out loud. At the time, I was out of town at a book signing and sitting in the lobby of my hotel checking my emails. An IM transcript of her conversation with her brother landed in my inbox. They were discussing a girl that my son had his eye on that just so happened to be a friend of my daughter's. Paige was informing my son Ryan, that she had firsthand information about who this girl liked and said, "I will tell you who she likes but you have to keep it between you and me." Following that statement, she added, "and mom cuz we know she's reading this." She then added, "Hi mom." I literally, laughed out loud.

I believe our children, deep down inside, want us to be engaged in their lives, and to draw boundaries for their protection. I can't promise you that you'll get a shout-out from your child in an IM transcript that lands in your inbox, but I can promise you that you are doing the right thing by getting involved in their wired worlds.


Social Networking Site Safety

Help your teenager exercise safe online social skills.

by Vicki Courtney

From malt shops in the 50's to roller rinks in the 70's, every generation of teenagers has gravitated to a place they can call their own. A place absent of rules, responsibilities and most importantly parents. Ten years ago, you might have found teens hanging out in the food court at the local mall. Today, teens opt for a virtual hangout. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have attracted teens by the millions from around the globe. It offers them the ability to stay in contact with their network of friends, share interests and hobbies, upload pictures, post video clips, share their favorite music, join causes or groups, send birthday wishes to friends and much more.

I have both a MySpace and a Facebook page so I can keep my finger on the pulse as I minister to teens and address issues about growing up in today's culture. I must confess that my experience on these sites has helped me better understand what draws teens there. Hardly a day goes by when I don't check my own pages!

If you allow your children to participate in the social networking sites (minimum requirement of 14 years of age for MySpace and freshmen in highschool for Facebook), consider using the tips below as a contract with your teen. Have your teen initial each tip as a personal pledge to honor these boundaries. Let your teen know that you will be book-marking his or her page and checking the content from time to time (either by logging onto his or her account directly or accessing it as an approved "friend"). Emphasize that it is not an issue of trust, but rather an issue of concern for his or her safety.

Rules for Social Networking Sites

Principle to follow: Remember that all space is really "His space." Would your page make God smile? Would others come away knowing you are a Christian? When it comes to the social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, 1 Chronicles 29:11 sums it up: "Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the splendor and the majesty, for everything in the heavens and on earth belongs to You. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom, and You are exalted as head over all"(NIV, emphasis added).

  1. Utilize the privacy controls and set your page to private (MySpace only). Your friends will still be able to locate you and send a request to be added to your friend list. Setting your page to "private" adds an extra level of protection. It sends a clear message to predators that you do not wish to be contacted by online strangers and that you desire to use the site as a means to communicate with your circle of friends. If your page is open to the public, it is the equivalent of inviting people into your home and allowing them to rifle through your photo albums, read your journals, notes or diaries. It becomes an open book, available to any of the recently estimated nine million or so individuals on the World Wide Web.

    Note to parents: MySpace users who are 18 years or older are banned from sending a "friend request" to users who are under 16 years of age, unless they are able to provide an e-mail address or last name of the person to whom they are sending the request. Parents should be aware that this does not safeguard against older teens, including friends of older siblings, from contacting children under age 16.
  2. Never share your last name, city, phone numbers, screen name, email address or other information that would make it easy for strangers to identify you or contact you one on one.

    Note to parents: Facebook requires that participants register by first and last name. This should be fine as long as your child only joins his or her school network. I strongly recommend that you not allow your kids to additionally join their "city" network, which in essence makes their page viewable by adults of all ages in the same city network.
  3. Ask your parents to read over your profile with you to see if you have disclosed information that would enable a stalker or predator to track you down. I know this sounds creepy, but try to view your page objectively through the eyes of someone who may have malicious intent. You can never assume that only "good people" are viewing your profile, even if it is set to private. They can gain access through others on your friend list or pose as someone your age. (Another reason to only accept your real-life friends!)
  4. Make sure your pictures are appropriate. Never upload pictures in swimsuits, pj's, or undergarments. Do not pose suggestively or seductively. It may seem funny to you, but those with malicious intent will misread it.
  5. Consider limiting your friend list to "real friends." Who needs 800+ online strangers as friends, anyway?
  6. When it comes to the comments others post on your wall/page/pictures, remember that you will be judged by the company you keep. In other words, "you are who you hang out with." If others feel comfortable coming on your page and posting inappropriate comments, whether it's sexual banter or the f-bomb, it should be a wake-up call that a character check is in order.
  7. If anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable online, tell your parents! If you receive a sexual solicitation, copy and paste it into an email and send it to CyberTipline.com. Don't dismiss this advice. It's important.

    Note to parents: Reinforce this action item with your teen. One in five kids between the ages of 10-17 have been solicited for sex online.
  8. Keep in mind that many schools, teachers, colleges, employers and other organizations are searching MySpace and Facebook for information about potential students or employees. If you would put your best foot forward with them in person, do the same online.
  9. Remember that information you delete never really goes away. The pages are archived and many are accessible free of charge to the public. Every time you post something online, it is like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for anyone who might want to trace your journey back to its starting point — even after you are long gone!

Parents, the list above is not comprehensive. If your child is young and/or lacks maturity, you might add additional safeguards such as no profile picture, no picture or video uploads allowed, no using the blog feature, no friends unless they are real live, good friends and/or you pre-approve them. Again, you can limit the information they post and ban them from utilizing many of the features offered. You can exercise control, but you must be engaged in the process in order to know how to do this. I highly recommend that you require your child to give you his or her page log-in information and spot check the page from time to time. I view this as the "training wheels phase" during which Mom and/or Dad come(s) alongside in an effort to teach their kids to use the sites in a responsible manner. To allow them to participate without parental guidance would be similar to taking your toddler off their tricycle, placing them on a ten speed back and giving them a push down a busy street. It's only a matter of time before disaster strikes!