Children Online—What Parents Should Know
FOR a time, it seemed that Internet safety was simply a matter of computer location. Keep the computer in a public area, it was thought, and your children will be less likely to veer toward the dark side of cyberspace. While that notion is still valid—common sense dictates against giving children Internet access in the privacy of their bedroom—it is not the final word in safety. These days wireless connections make it possible for youngsters to take the Internet with them wherever they go. Even many cell phones are equipped with online access. Then there are Internet cafés, Internet kiosks, libraries, and the old standby, a friend’s house. With so many options, it is easy to see how a youth’s online escapades can slip past a parent’s radar.
Consider some of the online activities that many youths are attracted to and their potential dangers.
What are they? Written messages that are sent electronically.
What is the appeal? E-mail is a fast and inexpensive way to correspond with friends and family.
What you should know. Unsolicited e-mails, often called spam, can be more than just a nuisance. Often they contain suggestive or blatantly obscene content. Links inside messages may prompt the user—including an unsuspecting child—to volunteer personal information, which can lead to identity theft. Replying to such e-mails—even with the firm request to stop sending e-mails—will confirm that the user has an active e-mail address, which may lead to further unsolicited e-mails.
What are they? Collections of electronic pages created and maintained by organizations, educational institutions, businesses, and individuals.
What is the appeal? Millions of sites are available, providing youths with endless opportunities to shop, do research, connect with friends, and play or download games and music.
What you should know. The Web has been exploited by all manner of unscrupulous individuals. Many Web sites feature explicit sex, and these are easy for the unwary to stumble upon. In the United States, for example, 90 percent of youths surveyed between the ages of 8 and 16 said that they had unintentionally encountered pornography online—in most cases while doing homework!
The Web also provides easy access to sites that promote teen gambling. In Canada, nearly 1 in 4 males surveyed in grades 10 and 11 admitted to having visited such sites, and experts are understandably concerned because of the highly addictive nature of online gambling. Then there are so-called pro-ana Web sites that glorify “the anorectic lifestyle.”* Meanwhile, hatemongering sites target minority religious and ethnic groups. Some sites teach how to make bombs, concoct poisons, and conduct terrorist operations. Depictions of extreme violence and bloody gore are prevalent in online games.
What are they? Electronic spaces for live text conversation, usually centered around a specific topic or interest.
What is the appeal? Your child can communicate with a number of individuals whom he or she may never have met but who share a common interest.
What you should know. Predators commonly frequent chat rooms hoping to lure a child into an online or even a face-to-face sexual encounter. Consider what happened when one of the authors of the book What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online? was researching Internet safety. As part of her research, she posed online as a 12-year-old. “Almost immediately,” reports the book, “she was invited by someone into a private chat room. She claimed she didn’t know how to get into it, and her helpful new friend walked her through the process. Then he wanted to know if she wanted to have [online] sex.”
What are they? Live text conversations between two or more individuals.
What is the appeal? With instant messaging, a user can choose which of his friends he will converse with, selecting from a contact list he has created. Not surprisingly, a Canadian study reports that 84 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds instant message their friends and that they do this for more than an hour a day.
What you should know. Instant-message conversations can be distracting if your child is supposed to be studying or engaging in another activity that requires concentration. In addition, how can you be sure with whom your son or daughter is communicating? After all, you cannot hear the conversation.
What are they? Online diaries.
What is the appeal? Blogging gives youths the opportunity to write about their thoughts, passions, and activities. Most blogs allow space for readers to leave comments, and many kids are thrilled to know that someone has responded to their writing.
What you should know. A blog is open to the public. Some youths carelessly reveal information that can be used to identify their family, school, or home address. Another factor: Blogs can harm reputations, including the blogger’s own. For instance, some employers consult an applicant’s blog when considering whether to hire that person.
ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS
What are they? Sites that allow youths to create a Web page and enhance it with pictures, videos, and blogs.
What is the appeal? Creating and enhancing a Web page enables a young person to express his or her identity. Online social networks allow young ones to meet many new “friends.”
What you should know. “A social networking site is like an online party,” says a girl named Joanna. “Some very scary people can show up.” The personal information posted on social networks can be exploited by unscrupulous youths and adults. Thus, Internet safety expert Parry Aftab calls such sites “one stop shopping for sexual predators.”
Furthermore, Internet friendships tend to be superficial. On their Web pages, some youths accumulate a number of online contacts whom they have never met face-to-face, simply to appear popular to others who visit their site. In her book Generation MySpace, Candice Kelsey writes that it really comes down to “judging a person’s social stock value merely by how many other people like him or her.” She adds: “This commodities-trading style of relating reduces our children to nonhuman entities and places an inordinate amount of pressure to represent themselves in whatever way will gain them more friends.” Thus, What in the World Are Your Kids Doing Online? asks a valid question: “How do you make it clear that children need to develop empathy and compassion when the electronic world allows them to meet and discard people at the drop of a hat?”
These six examples are just some of the Internet activities that fascinate young people today. If you are a parent, what can you do to protect your children from online dangers?
Many pro-ana sites and organizations claim that they do not promote anorexia. Some of these, however, present anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than as a disorder. Forums on such sites provide information on how to conceal one’s actual body weight and how to hide irregular eating habits from parents.
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In India the sharp rise in the number of Internet users—up 54 percent in just one year—is largely attributed to youths
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“A parent may see a Web cam as an easy and inexpensive way for a child to communicate with friends or relatives, but a predator sees it as an open window into a child’s bedroom.”—Robert S. Mueller III, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation