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4 Dangers of the Internet

Protect your kids from cyberbullying and exposure to sexual predators with these Internet safety tips from the experts.
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Mary Ellen Handy had a painful crash course in the dangers of the Internet. The trouble started in her freshman year of high school after a dispute over a boy's affections. Once she began dating him, a jealous girl flooded her computer with a stream of nasty messages.

"She'd say, 'I hate you; leave the school,' and she called me every name in the book," says Handy, now an 18-year-old senior in New Jersey. With the speed and ease of the Internet, her classmate soon recruited 20 others to bully Handy online. "It was like a ripple effect," she says. As the ordeal dragged on for months, she dreaded going to school, felt physically ill and saw her grades tumble.

No doubt, the Internet can be an extremely useful tool for young people. But instant messaging, chat rooms, emails and social networking sites can also bring trouble - from cyberbullying to more serious Internet dangers, including exposure to sexual predators.

How savvy are you about keeping your child or teenager safe online? Follow these tips to protect your kids from the 4 major dangers of the Internet.

Internet Danger #1: Cyberbullying

On the Internet, cyberbullying takes various forms, says Netsmartz411.org, an online resource that educates parents about Internet safety. Cyberbullying includes sending hateful messages or even death threats to children, spreading lies about them online, making nasty comments on their social networking profiles, or creating a website to bash their looks or reputation.

Cyberbullying differs from schoolyard bullying, Handy says. Teachers can't intervene on the Internet. "When it happens online, there's no one to filter it," she says. And cyberbullies don't witness their victims' reactions, the way they might if they insulted others to their faces. "They don't see you crying," Handy says, which may make it easier for them to continue.

Some cyberbullies pose as their victims and send out harassing messages to others. Recently, cyberbullies have also begun posting humiliating videos of other kids they dislike, says Parry Aftab, a cyberspace security and privacy lawyer who also serves as executive director of WiredSafety.org, one of the largest Internet safety education groups in the world.

In the age of YouTube, a website that hosts videos shot by users, "Kids are looking for their 15 megabytes of fame," Aftab says. "They do it to show that they're big enough, popular enough, cool enough to get away with it."

Often, kids don't tell parents they're being cyberbullied; they're afraid their parents will overreact or yank Internet privileges, Aftab adds. Her advice? If your son or daughter tells you, stay calm. If it's a one-time thing, try to ignore the bully and block future contact, she says. But if the cyberbullying involves any physical threat, you may need to call the police.

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