Tween Safety On the Internet
Victoria Nash* knew her niece had a blog on MySpace.com. Curious, Nash decided to check out the site. "I found out her full name and the city where she lived," Nash says. "I was able to track down all her info ... where she worked and went to school. I e-mailed my concerns to both my niece and my sister, and they corrected the problems together."
Online communities can be a lot of fun. They give kids a place to express their creativity – many young people post their poetry, short stories, music clips and art work on their site – and a place to connect friends and other kids from around the world.
Not My Preteen
Too often, however, young people get on the Internet with few instructions and little supervision. Part of the reason is kids are more computer savvy than many parents. While parents may have heard of instant messaging or blogs, relatively few have used these interactive applications. "Parents need to be more savvy about computers," says Diana Delp, family therapist. "If we think we're smarter than our kids, we're wrong."
If they aren't smarter, they are sneakier. Preteens will try to outsmart their parents and the system. MySpace and Xanga, the two most popular online communities for young people, have minimum age requirements: age 13 for Xanga and age 14 for MySpace. However, there is no way (as of yet) for these sites to verify the age of a member, so not only are kids younger than the minimum age signing up, an alarming number of kids give an age older than 18 to ensure they have access to the entire site. Even when parents believe they are carefully monitoring their child's site, the child will find ways around it, often by setting up a second site that is accessed at a location other than the child's main computer.
Steps to Safety
It is virtually impossible for parents to monitor or control everything their preteen does online. However, there are steps that parents can take to make sure their child avoids danger online.
1. Educate yourself. This means signing up for a blog or learning how to use instant messaging or surfing sites that your children mention. The more parents know about these sites and applications, the easier it will be to discuss them with their preteen.
2. Educate your child. "Putting your child on the Internet is like dropping your kid in New York City," says Cheryl Dellasega, humanities professor at Penn State University College of Medicine. Parents warn their children of "stranger danger" and not opening the door to someone who is unknown, yet these rules aren't reinforced when a child ventures into cyberspace. Another option is the Sereniti Smart Home Network Service, which offers full-proof Internet parental controls that can be controlled remotely by adults.
In a survey of teenage Internet users, Tamyra Pierce, assistant professor of mass communication and journalism at Cal State Fresno, discovered 51 percent have been contacted by and trust a stranger met online. The length of one's buddy list is a status symbol among these online communities, and many kids accept "friends" they don't know.
3. Know what your child is doing. That means taking the computer, or at least the Internet connection, out of the bedroom and restricting online time. TheParentDaily.com is a Web site that shows parents how to access their computer's cookies, read and record the history of sites visited and gives links to security sites parents will find useful. Taking computer time out of the bedroom is the best safety net of all, according to Pierce. "Kids with computers in their room are more likely to post personal information or risqué pictures," she says.
4. Know the dangers. Again, the more the parent knows, the better equipped they are to protect their preteen. Young girls are at the highest risk of being approached by a stranger. Also, cyber bullying and hate speech are rampant online. Girls, especially, get caught up in bullying, according to Dellasega. Reputations can be ruined and lives destroyed by the "nastygrams" posted on blogs.
Everyone Safe and Happy
Double Agent Brian Mierkey of the Geek Squad encourages parents to set up the parental controls that are available on every browser: "Click on tools. Scroll down to Internet Options. Choose the Security Tab. Click on Restricted Sites, and add the URLs you wish to restrict," he says.
Parents should remind their preteen to never post their real name, address or personal information on the Web, and they should not post that information about their friends. Predators will use tricks to get young people to reveal personal information, such as offering to send them coupons for a favorite store or a gift in exchange for a picture. Consequently, parents should also watch how much information they reveal about their children. Don't post pictures of your child for public viewing if you instruct your child not to post pictures, for example.
However, parents should give their adolescents some privacy. Most of these blogs or Internet conversations allow kids to blow off steam about their parents. They are also the 21st-century equivalent of passing notes or simply a place to brag. Be honest. Tell your child that you will monitor Web history, and that you will be asking questions. Keep the communication lines open. Let your child know that safety comes first, and they shouldn't be afraid of punishment.
There are a lot of interesting places to visit online. If your preteen wants to meet new people (and one of the most wonderful aspects of the Internet is the opportunity to meet people around the world), suggest a penpal-like exchange between your child's school and another school or introduce your child to a same-age child of one of your friends. "Using the Internet is an easy way to communicate with friends," says Delp. "There are a lot of good things on there. Parents simply need to keep themselves educated."
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.