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.
Internet Safety Tips
Some tips from Netsmartz.org for responding to cyberbullying:
- To keep others from using their email and Internet accounts, kids should never share Internet passwords with anyone other than parents, experts say.
- If children are harassed or bullied through instant messaging, help them use the "block" or "ban" feature to prevent the bully from contacting them.
- If a child keeps getting harassing emails, delete that email account and set up a new one. Remind your child to give the new email address only to family and a few trusted friends.
- Tell your child not to respond to rude or harassing emails, messages and postings. If the cyberbullying continues, call the police. Keep a record of the emails as proof.
Internet Danger #2: Sexual Predators
The online world opens the door for trusting young people to interact with virtual strangers - even people they'd normally cross the street to avoid in real life. About 1 in 7 kids have been sexually solicited online, says John Shehan, CyberTipline program manager for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia. The CyberTipline helps prevent sexual exploitation of children by reporting cases of kids enticed online to do sexual acts.
While sexual predators have targeted children in chat rooms, they migrate to wherever young people go online, Shehan says. More predators are now scouring social networking sites, such as MySpace and Xanga, because these sites have centralized so much information, Shehan says. A child's profile typically includes photos, personal interests and blogs.
"In terms of predators, that's obviously a hot spot where they can go to research victims," Shehan says. "They need to meet these kids, groom these children and become friends."
Predators may take on fake identities and feign interest in a child's favorite bands, TV shows, video games or hobbies. "They come across to the children as their new best friend. They're going to have the same likes and dislikes," Shehan says. "It's quite crafty what these child predators will go through."
Internet Safety Tips
- Ask your children if they use a social networking site. Look at the site together or search for it yourself online. Social networking sites often have age limits. MySpace prohibits kids under 14 - but doesn't verify kids' ages, so anyone can use it. If you want to delete a site, work with your child to cancel the account, or contact the social networking site directly.
- Tell your kids not to post a full name, address, phone number, school name and other personal information that could help a stranger to find them. Remind them that photos - like your child in a team sweatshirt - can give away clues to where they live. Ask them not to send photos to people they meet online.
- Learn about privacy settings that allow kids to choose who can view their profiles. Explain that strangers who approach them online aren't always who they say they are - and that it's dangerous to meet them in real life. Tell them to "instant message" only with family or friends they already know off-line.
- When it comes to Internet safety, there's no substitute for parental supervision. Put your computer in a common area of your home, not a child's bedroom, so you can keep an eye on online activities. Go to websites that explain the short-hand kids use in instant messaging, like "POS" ("parent over shoulder") or "LMIRL" ("let's meet in real life"), so you know what's going on.
- Ask your kids to report any online sexual solicitation to you or another trusted adult right away. Shehan asks adults to report the event to the CyberTipline (800-843-5678), where staff will contact law enforcement agencies to investigate. He also advises parents to call their local police and save all offensive emails as evidence.
Internet Danger #3: Pornography
One of the worst dangers of the Internet, for many parents, is the idea that pornography could pop up and surprise their children. But parents may not realize that some kids are going online to seek out web porn, too.
You can view the Internet browser history to see which websites your child is visiting, Shehan says. But since kids can delete this history, you may want to install Internet filtering software to block porn sites in the first place.
Software filters aren't a perfect solution; some nasty sites can slip through, while educational or family-rated sites may be blocked. So while some parents may wonder whether monitoring means they're spying on their kids, the safety factor often wins out. "If you get the monitoring software, put it on the computer and forget that it's there," Aftab says. That way, if someone's viewing porn, you'll have the records to deal with it.
Internet Safety Tips
- Install Internet filtering software to block porn sites from any computer your child has access to.
- Consider using filtering software that monitors and records instant messaging and chat room conversations, as well as websites visited.
- Consider using a monitoring program that filters pornography keywords in several languages. Why? Because some teens have figured out how to get around filters by typing in porn-related search terms in other languages.
Internet Danger #4: Damaged Reputations
Camera phones, digital cameras and web cams are everywhere these days, and kids can be victims of their own inexperience with new technology. Many post pictures, videos or notes online that they later regret. "Think before you post, because once you do, it's going to be up there forever," Shehan says.
A child's online reputation is a growing concern, Aftab says, with the rise of online social networking and profiles. She cites reports of schools and employers rejecting young people for high school programs, internships, college admissions and jobs after checking out what applicants have posted online.
Many teenage girls put up provocative photos of themselves, Shehan says. Why? Handy - a teenager herself - believes it's a game of one-upmanship. "Kids are trying to look cool. They're doing it because everyone else is doing it. A girl will see a picture and say, 'Oh, I can top that.' And before you know it, she's half-naked on the Internet for everybody to see."
Internet Safety Tips
- Explain that even if your kids delete their posted photos, others may have already copied them into public forums and websites.
- Tell your kids not to let anyone, even friends, take pictures or videos of them that could cause embarrassment online - such as if a relative or teacher saw them.
- Talk to your kids about possible consequences, the experts say. A 17-year-old might think it's hilarious to post a MySpace photo of themselves looking drunk, with empty beer bottles strewn around them. But will a college admissions officer be impressed? Probably not