Caught In The Web

Beware of the Dark Side of Cyberspace

What Parents Don't Know Can Hurt Their Kids

 

by Laura Emery, Field Editor

On a recent episode of Wife Swap, a reality show airing on the ABC network, a father demanded to see his young daughter’s Web page (posted on an unidentified social-networking site) after something disturbing was brought to his attention by his Wife Swap “wife.”

What he discovered shocked him. His 12-year-old daughter had posted a number of provocative photos of herself, including some with overtly sexual innuendo. Upset and stunned, he demanded that she immediately remove the inappropriate photos from the Web page. The father commented on how he knew she spent a lot of time on the computer — but that he never took the time to figure out what she was doing.

The young girl wasn’t going to give up without a fight. She erupted into a tearful episode, screaming, “Everyone does it, Dad!”

With social Web sites like MySpace.Com and Facebook attracting millions of young people every day, it has never been more important to caution children and teens on the dangers of using such hugely public forums. The Washington Post reported last year that MySpace attracts more monthly visitors than Amazon and is closing in on AOL and eBay. With more than 82.6 million members worldwide and 38.7 billion U.S. page hits a month just on MySpace alone (according to FoxNews.Com), the phenomenon of social Web sites is clearly a hugely popular trend among young people.

So, when your teen says that “everybody” (between 11-24 years old) is doing it, they’ve actually got a point.

Be Aware, or Beware!

For today’s younger generations, computer and Internet savvy come naturally, and are as second-nature to young adults as brushing their teeth. That’s why it is so important for parents to be aware of their children’s Internet activities, including where children post their private information and personal photos.

While Web sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Xanga do enable young people to interact and share common interests and thoughts — in a moment, they can also put your child in a dangerous position, or even under the glare of a public spotlight.

Many of the pages on these social Web sites are clean; however, if you surf the pages long enough, you’ll find photos depicting underage drinking and apparent drug use, as well as vulgarity, obscenity, and photos of scantily clad young teens in provocative poses (sometimes even doing provocative things).

Many young people feel they can safely express their opinions and share questionable or provocative photos on these Web sites. Actions, language, feelings, and thoughts a young adult would never dream of expressing to parents, counselors, and peers in face-to-face situations flow freely in many blogs. Such thoughts can reveal personal details that individuals with ill intentions can use to develop a dangerous relationship with your child.

Sexual predators can have access to such Web sites. Anyone can do a search for their local high school and see the details of dozens of young people. Hobbies, interests, dates of birth, hair colors, friends and other personal information is often listed for anyone to see. If a child posts that he or she is going to be somewhere at a particular time and date, it can be easy for a predator to wait for them there.

These Web sites are places where friendships are made, interests are shared, and fun photos are swapped — but, on the flip side, they are also places where reputations are tarnished, rumors are spread, and threats are made. Young bloggers might, for example, say things like they want to burn down the school or they want to kill so-and-so. While they may not mean it literally, these types of threats can be taken seriously by law-enforcement officials.

Parents can read all about blogging, chatting and instant messaging (a.k.a. I.M.ing) at www.familyinternet.about.com/od/chattingsafety. This is an extremely informative Web site on how to protect your children by being aware of what they may be doing. Among loads of other information, it contains a guide to acronyms commonly used by young adults in chat rooms and while instant messaging — acronyms like POS, which stands for “Parent Over Shoulder.”

An article by MSNBC.Com writer Bob Sullivan (located at www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3078811) points out that parents should do the things they would normally do in the real world. He writes, “Get to know your children’s cyberfriends — certainly don’t let them meet anyone in person without your attendance. Because in the end, computers don’t hurt kids: People hurt kids.”

Steps To Security

The National Cyber Security Alliance (www.staysafeonline.org) offers the following tips for keeping your kids safe online: 1) Keep your computer in a central and open location in your home and be aware of other computers your child may be using; 2) discuss and set guidelines/rules for computer use with your children; 3) use the Internet with your children and familiarize yourself with their online activities; 4) implement parental control tools that are provided by some ISPs and available for purchase as separate software packages; and 5) know who your children’s online friends are and supervise their chat areas.

This Web site also suggests that parents set some parental controls within their computer browser. Internet Explorer allows you to restrict or allow certain Web sites to be viewed on your computer, and you can protect these settings with a password. To find those options, click “Tools” on your menu bar, select “Internet Options,” choose the “Content” tab, and click the “Enable” button under “Content Advisor.”

Computer Activity Monitoring

There is also a plethora of computer-monitoring software that is specifically designed to help parents track their child’s Internet activities and protect them from the dark side of cyberspace. When used properly, this software is more about protecting your child than it is about spying on them. For more information on these programs, see: www.software4parents.com, www.snapshotspy.com, or www.webwatcherkids.com.

Be aware of what your kids are doing online. It could save a reputation, or even a life.

 

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