Internet Safety

"Unfortunately the same advances in computer and telecommunication technology that allow our children to reach out to new sources of knowledge and cultural experiences are also leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and harm by computer-sex offenders."

By Louis J. Freeh, Former Director 
Federal Bureau of Investigation

Advances in computer technology are not only making our children vulnerable to sex offenders, they are also making our children, especially teenagers, vulnerable to cyber bullies and often their own peers who torment and humiliate them on social medial such as Facebook, Twitter and a multitude of blogs. All too often, Cyber-Bullying ends in self-destructive behavior, depression and sometimes even death. What can you do to protect your children from sexual predators and bullying over the internet?

Let's begin with sex offenders prowling for victims online. What they are looking for is vulnerable targets, your children. How do you combat this? Monitor your child's activities while they are using the internet. This is not about invading their privacy, it's about protecting them. You don't have to read every private e-mail they share with their friends, but be aware of the content they are assessing and who they're communicating with online.

What you're looking for is an abnormal obsession with websites and chat rooms, as well as secretive behavior related to the computer. Teens are naturally curious about sexuality. It's something they'll discuss with their friends or even strangers before approaching the topic with their parents. This makes them vulnerable to online predators that will introduce them to sexually explicit material and conversation online, who will then attempt to setup an in person meeting. Too many teens have been lured to secret meetings with sex offenders believing they're going to see a friend they can talk to, putting them in vulnerable situations that can have a devastating long-term affect.

If you suspect your child might be communicating with strangers online, initiate a conversation immediately to discuss the dangers of internet predators. It's not an easy discussion, as you know, kids believe they know it all and don't need or want what they view as your interference in their private life. However, your role as a parent is to get involved when their safety is at stake. Present the facts and allow them to participate in the discussion to end practices that could make them the target of a sexual predator. Remember, your goal is to protect them and, in some cases, that means from themselves. Therefore, closely monitor your child's use of the internet so it remains a valuable tool versus destructive weapon.

Here are some signs to look for:

Your child spends a considerable amount of time online, especially at night, which is not related to school work.

Your child turns off the computer or quickly switches the screen content when you enter the room.

You find pornography on your child's computer.

Your child is using the online account belonging to a stranger.

Your child receives phone calls from someone you don't know, usually a man.

Your child receives gifts or mail from a stranger.

Your child withdraws from the family.

Strangers aren't always the online predators. Peers and other children in their school are also engaging in internet activity like Cyber-Bullying.

Cyber-Bullying is not the same as other types of bullying and often the motive and profile of the bullies differ from their school yard counterparts. Even people who understand the campus bully often mistakenly believe that Cyber-Bullying is just another form of bullying. It's not, and each situation must be evaluated and resolved on an individual basis. Unlike most bullying done in person, Cyber-Bullying surrounds them on their phone, at home, in their social life and sometimes shared with others, creating even more stress for the victim.

Cyber-Bullying puts parents in a difficult position. Reaching the proper level of interest and guidance is essential. The key for parents is to clarify their child's role: victim, bully or both. Discuss the consequences explaining that both have something to lose. That Cyber-Bullying is more than just a prank and can ruin their lives. In extreme cases individuals have taken their lives and bullies have been severely prosecuted. Teach your child to think about what they're about to do online before they act.

In March of 2011, a UCLA college student posted a video online complaining about the "hoards of Asians" enrolling at UCLA and said they had interrupted her library studies with cell phone calls about a tragedy in Japan.

Her video received national attention and resulted in her receiving death threats and later withdrawing from school.

In January of 2010, 15 year old Phoebe Prince took her life as a result of being bullied online and in person by fellow classmates.

The nine teenagers involved faced charges including assault, stocking, violation of civil rights resulting in injury, criminal harassment, and delinquency.

Eighteen year old Ally Pfeiffer found a Facebook profile impersonating her, substituting her picture with a photograph of a cow making fun of her weight.

Police traced the cruel behavior back to two former classmates of Ally's who were later charged with criminal impersonation and second degree harassment.

These are examples of not being aware of the devastating effect of how a young person's technological behavior can impact both their lives and that of others. The consequences for all involved can have a serious impact on their future.

As the parent you want to believe your child will come to you first when things go wrong online. Unfortunately, many children and young adults avoid telling their parents fearing an overreaction that will make things worse. On the other hand you might take the situation too lightly and provide no support at all. Again, the key is that your child is vulnerable; therefore, you need to manage what they're doing on the internet that could potentially have a serious impact on their lives. There is rarely a common solution to a multitude of internet-related problems. Finding a solution begins with being able to speak to your children openly about the situation. Whether they're the victim or bully, communication is the first step to resolution.

As a parent, remember that most children and teenagers feel they are in command of their use of the internet. They believe they know how to navigate the information super highway better than you do and that they're impervious to danger. Unfortunately, it's not always true. Sometimes they need the leadership of a strong parent who is willing to make the tough, unpopular decision to protect them from predators, as well as themselves.