Let’s say your daughter sits down at the computer to create her first personal page on Facebook. What’s your first thought?
Is it, “That’s so nice that she’s using her computer skills” or “What a great way to communicate with her friends?”
Let’s face it. Your mind probably wanders to those dark places in cyberspace, where evil strangers wait for a next victim.
Real online dangers
Indeed, there can be real danger lurking online in popular social networking sights. One out of every five U.S. teens who regularly log on to the Internet say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Another study, by the Youth Internet Safety Survey, found that only about 25 percent of kids who encountered a sexual approach or solicitation on the Internet told a parent about it.
Scary stuff — and a big reason parents need to get involved.
“I don’t believe in fear,” says Linda Criddle, Internet child safety expert and author of the Internet safety book, Look Both Ways. “I encourage parents to understand the potential of these social networking sites, to feel empowered. There’s nothing bad about social networking sites, just like there’s nothing bad about driving.”
Judy T. Nelson, youth services coordinator for the Pierce County Library System, agrees. “It’s too late to put the genie back in the bottle,” she says. “The reality is that we can’t stop it completely. We need to try and find an appropriate, positive healthy way to incorporate it.”
Enforcing online safety with kids
Experts say parents can’t look to social networking websites themselves to enforce safety precautions. Their profits depend on number of users and they are reluctant to do much that will limit access to their sites.
Last year, the giant MySpace hired its first chief security officer, a former federal prosecutor and Microsoft Corp. executive. This May, MySpace agreed to a request by top law enforcement officers from eight states to turn over names of registered sex offenders who use the social networking site.
About 7,000 profiles out of a MySpace databank of 180 million have been removed. The downside? Only predators who use their real names and dates of birth can be caught in the system. “What that means is that they’re catching really stupid criminals,” Criddle says.
Creating laws that require safeguards is probably not the answer either, according to Nelson. “The reality is that the technology is changing so quickly that it’s virtually impossible to create legislation today to affect what’s going to be created for tomorrow.”
Increased awareness has sparked efforts such as the 2SMRT4U campaign, which encourages teens to make safe choices when posting information about themselves on these sites. The campaign was created by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service in partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or NCMEC.
Parents on the line
But, experts agree, parents are the best resource for keeping their kids safe while using social networking sights, and their first step should be to educate themselves. Explore the web and go to your local library or community college and take a class, they suggest.
“Parents really need to be aware of what’s out there,” says Detective Richard Voce of the Tacoma Police Department. “Most parents really don’t understand the technology. They use their computers at work. But their kids have grown up on computers.”
Once you’re educated, it’s time to talk safety with your child. Seattle Police Sgt. Leanne Shirey, founder of The Internet and Your Child, a group that offers classes for parents, says she believes parents must have access to their child’s Web sites. “Tell them it’s not that you’re spying on them,” she says. “You’re there to help keep them safe and make sure that bad things don’t happen to them. That’s the job of a parent.”
Criddle, a former Microsoft program manager, says Internet safety should be a shared activity. “Safety is not something you can do to any kid over the age of 10,” she says. “Safety is something you do with them.”
She suggests that you and your child go through someone else’s social networking site profile first, looking for and discussing safety issues. Then set a time limit (24 hours or less) for him to clean up his site before both of you go through it.
“I do not believe in spying,” Criddle says. “Tell the kid you want to sit down with him. If he says no, it’s time to turn the computer off.”
Private profiles for kids
A first precaution can be to convince your child to make his social networking profile private.
“It’s all about what do you share and who are you sharing it with,” Criddle says. “Sharing personal information with family and friends is one thing. It’s when you share private information with the public that you put yourself at risk.”
Shirey cautions parents to look for any obvious identifying information, such as name, addresses, school name, etc. A recent NCMEC survey conducted by University of New Hampshire researchers found that 34 percent of teens posted their real names, telephone numbers, home addresses or the names of their schools.
Look carefully at photos for identifying information. Shirey points to the teen who is so proud of her first car she posts a picture of it — with the license plate in full view. “I can go down to the DOL [Department of Licensing], pay a few dollars and get all the information I need,” she says.
Some teens like to embellish their profiles with exaggerated claims of beer drinking and partying. “A lot of people will create a persona that they really aren’t,” says Voce. “When you want to fit in, when you want to be a part of the cool crowd, technically you can make yourself anything you want.”
Unfortunately, those “cool” personas can follow a teen to job interviews and college applications. Information in cyberspace can have a very long shelf life.
Then there are the seemingly harmless family photos. “Here they are inviting the burglar in because they’ve posted a photo of everyone in the family room posing in front of the new big-screen television,” Shirey says.
Social networking dangers for kids
Social networking site safety experts say parents should be aware that predators come with many agendas. Some are burglars who will invade your home; some are thieves who will steal your identity and your bank account. And there are the cyberspace bullies who can make your child’s life miserable.
Shirey points to one study of “cyberbullies” that said that the worst offenders are sixth-grade girls, and their weapon of choice is text messaging. “You don’t have to be the biggest kid anymore to be a bully,” she says.
Parents should also be aware that MySpace and the smaller Facebook, with 20 million college users, are not the only kids on the block. Pay attention to video sites like Stickam and dating sites like espinthebottle.com. Perusing these sites can be a walk on the wild side, with sexually suggestive content.
Suggestive video and text on your child's social networking site profile can attract unwanted attention from dangerous people. Voce recalls pursuing one case in which he went online pretending to be a 12-year-old girl who struck up a conversation with an older man. When a meeting was arranged, the man was arrested. He had a hunting knife strapped to his leg and a loaded 9-millimeter handgun.
“Nothing in his background suggested he would do something like that, but there it was,” Voce says. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, but on that, with the right safety precautions, never has to be realized.
Freelance writer Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle with her husband and twin teenage daughters.
7 online safety tips for parents
1. Install software to filter out harmful Web sites
2. Only provide child-safe search engines
3. Never reveal — and make sure your child never reveals — personal information online
4. Do not share files with strangers
5. Monitor children's Web sites
6. Avoid chat room problems
7. Consider spy software
Source: 365 Ways to Keep Kids Safe
4 great books for keeping kids be safe online
Look Both Ways: Help Protect Your Family on the Internet, by Linda Criddle
Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly, by Nancy E. Willard
Logged On and Tuned Out: A Non-Techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-savvy Generation, by Vicki Courtney
365 Ways to Keep Kids Safe, by Don Keenan