It’s no exaggeration to say that just about everyone is online today. Even people who don’t have access to computers, such as most in developing nations, are accessing the Net via cell phones. Whether it’s exchanging text messages or email, accessing websites, using apps, or participating in social media, the Net is now part of most people’s everyday lives.
Children are no exception. In fact, they are more likely to be online than many adults. This guide is designed to help parents, educators, other caregivers and policymakers gain an understanding as to how to best “protect” children on fixed and mobile network platforms.
What we’ve learned and what’s changed in 20 years
Unlike the first 1994 edition of the guide, this version is based not only on 20 more years of experience, but the latest research into how youth are using the Net, what works, and what are — and aren’t — likely risks.
One thing we have learned in the last 20 years is that many young people — certainly most teens — are pretty savvy about how they use the Net, though all of us can use some reminders now and then. We’ve also learned that there is sometimes a bit of tension between “protecting” youth and respecting them and their rights. How adults supervise young people should always be based not only on their chronological age but on their judgment and emotional maturity. Of course, not all children are equally at risk online or offline and there will always be some who need an extraordinary amount of attention and intervention. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to prevention does not work. And that’s something that only parents and caregivers — not advice-givers — can know about the children in their care.
Another big change over the past 20 years is that children are no longer just accessing the Net via computers. They are also going online with phones, tablets, Wi-Fi-equipped media players like the iPod Touch, connected TVs and game consoles. And the list keeps growing. Thanks to Google Glass, we can now access the web as we walk around and navigate through voice and eye movements. It’s hard to imagine the technology that might be mentioned in the 40th-anniversary edition of this guide.
Who’s in charge here?
The simple answer is no one and everyone. The Internet has lots of “stake-holders.” Governments, companies, schools, non-profit groups and those of us who access the Net, all have an interest in keeping it safe, productive and useful. But no single entity is in charge. We are, literally, all in this together. Most companies that provide Internet access, publish apps or run social media services try to provide their subscribers with an enjoyable, safe, and rewarding experience, but it’s not possible for these companies to monitor everyone who uses their service anymore than a government can control the behavior of the people within its borders.
And of course, just about anyone in the world — companies, governments, organizations, and individuals — can publish material on the Internet. This is especially true in the age of social media where Facebook alone has more than a billion people creating content for others to see. What someone posts in Eastern Europe can be seen by users in West Virginia or in East Hampton. It’s truly a global village and, despite the efforts of a few governments to control the Internet in their country, there are no cyber-borders. That’s not to say that people can’t be brought to justice for crimes committed online — that happens frequently. But we can’t fully rely on governments or companies to protect us and, frankly, children can’t rely on their parents to protect them 100% of the time. We all need to be media literate so that we can help protect ourselves and those we care for.
Benefits of the Internet
Unlike the first edition of this booklet, there’s no need to list all of the great things you can do online. But suffice it to say that the Internet has revolutionized the way we communicate, shop, drive, travel, get our news, and, increasingly, the way we learn and teach. It’s still a very young medium so there is a lot more growth ahead. but the Net has already had a profound — and extremely positive — the impact that will only increase over time. One big change over the past decade has been the growth of user-supplied content.
There was a time when, even on the Internet, most of the content came from media companies and professional content creators but, today, most of what’s online comes from ordinary people using social media tools including blogs, services like Facebook and YouTube, and thousands of mobile apps to post their own content and comment on what others have posted. Young people aren’t just consuming content, they’re creating it, which means they have an even further responsibility to respect themselves, those they might mention or depict and those impacted by what they post. It also makes it nearly impossible to regulate content, since the content is coming from everywhere.
Mobile impacts safety strategy
The first edition of this guide advised parents to “keep the computer in a central place in the home” so they could keep their eye on the kids’ online use. With mobile technology, that advice is impractical so it’s more important than ever to teach children to think critically about how they are using the technology whether they’re home or in-school or away from adult supervision. We can’t watch over our children 24/7, but we can empower them to protect and respect themselves and support their peers.
Mostly positive but kids still need guidance
Most people who go online have mainly positive experiences. But, like any endeavor — attending school, cooking, riding a bicycle, or traveling — there are some risks and annoyances. The online world, like the rest of society, is made up of a wide array of people. The vast majority are decent and respectful, but some may be rude, obnoxious, insulting, or even mean and exploitative. Children and teens get a lot of benefit from being online, but they can also be targets of harassment and, though rare, even exploitation and crime, in this as in any other environment. Even children who are tech-savvy may need a little help in navigating the emotional and social risks of being in a public space like the Internet. And parents — even those who may be technologically challenged — continue to have a crucial role to play in guiding their children and helping them sort out and deal with the stresses of life, both online and offline.
Putting risk in perspective
There have been some highly publicized cases of bad things that have happened to people — including children — as a result of their being online. But that doesn’t mean that most children will experience serious problems. The vast majority of people — kids and adults — who use the Internet do not get into serious trouble. True, just about everyone will, at some point, experience some amount of discomfort from such things as unwanted spam email, exposure to unpleasant web content or having to deal with someone who is rude and annoying. But unfortunately, that’s always been true in life. We can’t protect children from all of life’s unpleasantries, but we can help them learn to deal with them.
The fact that negative things can be encountered online is not a reason to avoid using the Internet or necessarily even a specific app or service. To tell children to stop using the Internet would be like telling them to forgo attending school because students are sometimes victimized or bullied there. A better strategy would be to teach children to be “street smart” in order to better safeguard themselves in any potentially uncomfortable or dangerous situation.
Also, how your children behave online affects their risk. Being aggressive towards others increases their risk of being treated poorly. Talking about sex online with strangers increases the odds of an unwanted sexual solicitation. This guide will help you better understand both risky and safe behaviors.
As you think about helping kids stay safe online, try to think beyond the Internet and anyone’s technology and try to think beyond safety. Media literacy, critical thinking, and being aware of your surroundings and impact on others doesn’t just protect you online, it protects you in all aspects of life. Internet safety is a bit like water safety. To quote a 2002 National Academy of Science report on Internet safety, “Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing one can do for one’s children is to teach them to swim.” It’s time to dive in.
What are the risks?
Just as in the physical world, there are risks associated with going online. Here are some:
- Harassment and bullying
Just as has been going for eternity, some kids are mean to other kids. On social networking sites and apps or via email or text messages, children sometimes encounter messages that are belligerent, demeaning, harassing, annoying, or just plain mean.
For the most part, cyberbullying is the same as regular bullying and often both occur at the same time (kids who are bullied online or via phone are often also bullied at school, usually by the same people). And, while bullying can be extremely harmful, not all negative interactions online rise to the level of bullying, which typically is defined as repetitive and where there is a power imbalance. Sometimes what adults consider bullying is what kids see as “drama.” Not every snide comment, innuendo or joke at another’s expense requires adult intervention.
There are no silver bullets because bullying is about relationships. As for parenting, it’s important to listen to your kids and encourage them to talk to a trusted friend or adult for support and comfort. And since we can never protect kids against every possible insult, teaching resilience is also very important. There’s a lot written on this topic including some great advice that you’ll find referenced on SafeKids.com’s Bullying and Cyberbullying Resources page. Also, see ConnectSafely’s Tips to Help Stop Cyberbullying.
- Posting material that could harm your reputation
How you present yourself online is a reflection of you. Whether it’s being mean to others or being seen in photographs where you are dressed inappropriately or doing something that could embarrass you now or in the future, there are situations that can haunt you for a very long time. Anything digital can be copied, stored, and pasted so even though you think it’s been deleted, there is a chance that what you post online could follow you for a long time. Still, it’s a good idea to look around for anything about you or your kids online that you might want to take down before it’s seen by the wrong people. Facebook and other social networks have tools that allow you to review and remove posts and pictures that could embarrass you in the future. Consider using a search engine to see what’s been posted publicly by and about your kids.
Most teens have heard about the risks associated with inappropriate posts (especially those applying for college) but it never hurts to have a discussion about this and to be a good role model by making sure your own posts (and those with pictures of your kids) are suitable for just about anyone who might see them.
- Security risks
There are a variety of security risks ranging from downloading files that contain malicious software that can jeopardize your privacy or financial data, to social engineering scams that trick people into giving up personal information including passwords and credit card numbers. The best way to protect yourself and your children is for you and them to think critically about the information you provide. If you get an email that asks you for a password and user name, question whether it’s legitimate and — even if you think it is — don’t click on any links, but type in the address of the site yourself to avoid getting caught up in a “phishing” scheme. Make sure you and your kids have secure passwords and that they know to never give them out to anyone, even their best friends. The one exception is for young kids to share their passwords with their parents. Be sure that your devices’ operating systems are up-to-date and use up-to-date security software. Be very careful about any apps you install on a smartphone or software you download on a computer.
Also be on guard for identity theft where someone steals just enough information to be able to impersonate you or your child. It turns out that children are often victims of identity theft because they almost always have perfect credit records so — by impersonating them — it’s possible to borrow money in their name. Also beware of impersonation on social networks where others post embarrassing, distasteful, mean, and potentially even illegal content in your child’s name.
There are lots of ways that a child’s privacy could be at risk. The biggest is what they post themselves. If something is really embarrassing or simply shouldn’t be shared with the public, then don’t put it online.
Talk with your kids about the privacy tools on social networks. Most allow you to restrict who can see your posts but be aware that even posts that are private can be copied and shared by others (rude though that is). For more on social network and app privacy, see ConnectSafely’s parents’ guides.
Another privacy risk is third party tracking cookies and other techniques that hone in on your interests and target you with advertising and offers. There are ways to minimize the ability of companies to track you online (some browsers have settings to help prevent it) but it’s hard to avoid completely. Also, as annoying as the ads may be, it’s the price we pay for all the great free services and content out there. It’s very unlikely that a tracking cookie can affect your or your child’s safety, especially if they come from reputable sites.
Mobile apps: Pay close attention to the mobile apps your kids are using. What information do they collect? Some apps track your child’s location, others seek permission to post publicly on their user’s behalf. Many routinely ask “permission” for all sorts of information when you install them so it’s a good idea to review the apps and what information they are collecting or passing on.
- Legal and financial risks
A child could do something that has negative legal or financial consequences such as giving out a parent’s credit card number or doing something that could get them in trouble with the law or school officials. That can even include “sexting,” taking and sharing nude, partially nude, or sexually provocative pictures of themselves that can violate child pornography laws and other statutes. Legal issues aside, children should be taught good “netiquette” which means to avoid being inconsiderate, mean, or rude.
- Exposure to inappropriate material
A child may be exposed to inappropriate material that is sexual, hateful, or violent in nature, or encourages activities that are dangerous or illegal. Children could seek out such material but may also stumble on it if they’re not looking for it. If you think your child may be looking at pornography, take a deep breath and think about how you should react. For more, see So your kid is looking at porn. Now what?
- Online predators and physical molestation
Although it can happen, the risk of a child or teen being harmed by someone they met on the Internet is very low. There has been a widespread misunderstanding of a 2005 study that found that 1 in 7 youths had received an unwanted online sexual solicitation but the authors of that study — the Crimes Against Children Research Center — posted a fact sheet that explains that these solicitations are typically not from predators and most of the recipients of the solicitations did not view them as serious. “Most were limited to brief online comments or questions in chat rooms or instant messages. Many were simply rude, vulgar comments,” and “Almost all youth handled unwanted solicitations easily and effectively.”
It’s certainly a good idea for children and teens to be careful when communicating with people they don’t know in person and, if the conversation starts to be about sex or physical details, that’s a very good time to bail out. Research has shown that talking about sex with strangers is one of the most dangerous things a young person can do online.
While it’s generally OK to post appropriate pictures, school name, or the city you live in, kids should avoid posting their home address and, if they do post their phone numbers and email addresses, it should be restricted only to actual friends.
Children should be cautioned not to get together with someone they met online. If, for some reason, a meeting is arranged, make the first one in a public place. And be sure to accompany your child. If you do suspect that your child is being contacted by an adult for sexual reasons, contact your local police and then report it to the CyberTipline online or by calling 800 843-5678.
For more on the facts and myths beyond Internet predators, see Predator Panic Making a Comeback.
How parents can help reduce risks
While children need a certain amount of privacy, they also need parental involvement and supervision in their daily lives. The same general parenting skills that apply to the “real world” also apply online. If you have cause for concern about your children’s online activities, talk to them. Also seek out the advice and counsel of teachers, librarians, and other parents. Having open communication with your children and trying out the apps and services they use will help you obtain the full benefits of these services and alert you to any potential problem that may occur with their use. If your child tells you about an upsetting message, person, or website, don’t blame your child but help him or she avoid problems in the future. Remember — how you respond will determine whether they confide in you the next time they encounter a problem and how they learn to deal with problems on their own.
Filters and monitoring tools
While technological-child-protection tools are worth exploring, they’re not a panacea. To begin with, no program is perfect. There is always the possibility that something inappropriate could slip through or something that is appropriate will be blocked. Also, filtering programs do not necessarily protect children from all dangerous activities. And even though they might block what children can see online, they might not block what they can say. For example, even with a filter, it might be possible for a child to post inappropriate material or personal information on a social networking site or blog or disclose it in a chat room or instant message. Also, some filters do not work with peer-to-peer networks that allow people to exchange files such as music, pictures, text, and videos. Filters are not a substitute for parental involvement. Regardless of whether you choose to use a filtering program or an Internet rating system, the best way to assure that your children are having positive online experiences is to stay in touch with what they are doing. The best filter — the one that lasts a lifetime — doesn’t run on a device but on the software between your child’s ears.
Guidelines for parents
- Have a conversation (not a lecture) with your children about how they are using connected technology. Ask them what services and apps they use and get them to show you how they use them.
- Don’t overreact. If you become concerned or if something goes wrong, work with your children to solve the problem and don’t punish them or take away their access for coming to you with a problem.
- Very young children should be cautioned to not give out identifying information — home address or telephone number — in a public space such as a social networking site or app that can be accessed by people they don’t know.
- It’s now common to post photographs on the web but think about whether they are appropriate, especially if they include young children. Also, be aware of what’s in the background as well as any data associated with the photograph that could identify where the picture was taken. Respect other people’s privacy rights when posting pictures that include them.
- Get to know any services or apps your child uses. If you don’t know how to use the service, get your child to show you. Have your child show you what he or she does online and become familiar with the services. You’ll find links to ConnectSafely.org’s guides to the services that are most popular with children and teens at SafeKids.com.
- Be aware of the information that sites and apps collect. It could include your child’s location (especially mobile apps) or list of friends and contacts. Some apps let you limit what they collect so pay close attention to the “permissions” they request when you install them.
- Avoid allowing young children to arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they “meet” on the Internet. If a meeting is arranged, make the first one in a public place, and be sure to accompany your child. Talk with teens about cautions they should take before any in-person meetings including having them in a public place and bringing friends along.
- Never respond to messages that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, threatening, or make you feel uncomfortable. Encourage your children to tell you if they encounter such messages. If you or your child receives a message on a social networking site or service, use the service’s reporting tools or support e-mail address to let them know. If the message is harassing or threatening, ask your local police for advice.
- Remind your child not to click on any links that are contained in email from persons they don’t know. Such links could lead to websites that try to trick them into revealing personal information or contain sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate material or could be a source of malicious software.
- If someone sends you or your children messages or images that are “filthy, indecent, lewd, or obscene with the intent to abuse, annoy, harass, or threaten you, or if you become aware of the transmission, use, or viewing of child pornography while online immediately report this to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline at 1-800-843-5678 or online at www.cybertipline.com.” (NCMEC’s wording)
- Remember that everything you see online may not be true. Use your critical thinking skills with both content and offers. Consider the source of any content and be careful about any offers that involve you going to a meeting, having someone visit your house, or sending money or credit card information. Any offer that’s “too good to be true” probably is.
- Consider signing an online safety contract with your children. SafeKids.com’s Family Contract for Online Safety has separate contracts for parents, teens, and children to sign.
This document was written by SafeKids.com founder and ConnectSafely.org co-director, Larry Magid. The first several editions of Child Safety on the Information Highway were published and copyrighted by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). However, this version has been completely re-written and updated. NCMEC has retired its version of the guide but has excellent resources on its website.