Solutions for Today's Top Five Internet Dangers for Teens
By Michelle Hainer
It’s hard to imagine what life was like before the Internet, when your social network included people you’d actually met in person, and the only mail you received came by postal carrier. Yes, the web has made it easier than ever to communicate, but with that ease come unwanted threats. And kids are the most vulnerable.
“You can’t limit your kids from using the Internet, because these days it’s a part of their natural development,” says Kevin McDonald, who sits on the board of WebWiseKids, a web site that uses games to help teach kids about Internet dangers. “What you can do is learn to make them safe.”
Here’s an overview of the top five dangers that kids face online and what you can do to protect them.
Danger No. 1: Cyberbullies
The risk: Cyberbullying is repetitive harassment or threats usually made by a classmate or peer. The harassment is carried out through email, instant messaging or social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook and has become the number one danger that kids face online. And the anonymity of the Internet makes it easy for kids to engage in threatening behavior, says Francie Alexander, Scholastic’s chief academic officer and co-author of The Internet: A Kid’s Handbook. “It’s much easier to bully someone when no one is looking,” she says.
Safety strategy: ConnectSafely is an educational web site where kids and parents go to understand the latest online bully tactics that threaten kids. A forum on the site offers parents and teens advice on everything from blogging to dealing with hackers and bullies.
Danger No. 2: Cyber predators
The risk: According to a study done by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven children have received an unwanted sexual solicitation. “We talk to our kids about stranger danger, and that’s just as prevalent in the virtual world,” says Alexander. “When your kids go out to play, you ask them where they’re going and who’s going to be there. The same goes for their online activity. Don’t be embarrassed to be the POS (parent over the shoulder).”
Safety strategy: If this happens to your child, report the incident immediately at CyberTipline, a site run by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Also visit Netsmartz411, where parents can have their questions answered by real, live safety experts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Danger No. 3: Social networking sites
The risk: These days, it’s practically social suicide not to have a Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Hi5 or Xanga page. But while social networking sites provide kids with a ton of opportunities and ways of communicating, they may not realize that what they post today (suggestive pictures, song lyrics or too much personal information) can come back to haunt them later. Unlike a letter, which can be burned or torn to pieces, what’s written on the web lasts forever. Also, adults can pose as kids and easily reach out to kids on these sites if their profiles are public. Alexander advises parents to have a general awareness of these sites (even if that means creating their own profiles), but to stop at injecting themselves into chats their kids may be having with their friends. “When your child’s friend comes over to your house, you know who they are, but you’re not up in their room chatting with them,” she says.
Safety strategy: StaySafeOnline is a great resource site produced by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA), a group of experts who are dedicated to teaching the public about Internet security. The Federal Trade Commission has also created OnGuardOnline, a site that provides tips from the government and technology industry on how to protect your information online (check out Topics > Social Networking Sites).
Danger No. 4: Adult content
The risk: As we all know, the Internet is inundated with adult content. And now, even on sites that kids might like to visit, such as social networks or video download sites, adult content is lurking.
Safety strategy: If you have reason to believe your child is being exposed to adult content on the Internet, such as gambling sites or pornographic material, McDonald advises installing monitoring software. Spector Pro or CyberPartrol are software programs that can monitor everything your child does on his or her computer: keystrokes, emails, chats or IM activity, web sites visited and so on. In addition, you can install filtering software, such as NetNanny, which can help you control the types of sites your kids can access.
Danger No. 5: Botnet attacks
The risk: A botnet attack is a tactic hackers use to obtain your personal information. The bot, short for “robot,” invades your computer, usually through email or pop up ads that offer free screensavers or emoticons. The bot infiltrates your computer and can steal your personal info and infect your computer with viruses.
Safety strategy: Software can help protect your computer from botnet attacks. Also, make sure all of the software on your computer is updated, which can help keep out bugs and bots.
Though there are risks, the Internet doesn’t have to be a dangerous place for kids. It can be a great resource for homework help, playing games, expressing creativity or visiting fan sites. By being aware of the new threats, parents like you can take steps to keep kids’ safety along the way.
Michelle Hainer a freelance writer and editor in New York.