Raising Children in a Cyber World
When you think “online” the first thing that comes to mind is a computer. In almost every home now, this incredible device can connect your child to endless sources of information on almost every topic. Research has never been easier with a computer that has online access. But with that accessibility comes responsibility.
Many parents and guardians know they need to keep their children from strangers lurking online, but don’t know how. The technological lingo can be overwhelming, and many caretakers feel helpless protecting their children from a cyber world that is growing faster than they can learn about it. This is especially frustrating since there are many more ways to talk to each other besides email.
Programs such as AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), ICQ (I-Seek-You), IRC (Internet Relay Chat), Googletalk, Gmail chat, YIM (Yahoo Instant Messenger), and MSN Messenger allow people to speak to each other around the world almost instantaneously. Most require a file download, but some such as AIM Express can be used directly from the www.aol.com website, and Gmail chat can be used with any open Gmail window without downloading a thing.
Peer-to-peer systems are file sharing networks. They allow people from around the world to trade music, pictures, movies, games, and any other files or software you can imagine. Some P2P’s are more protected than others, but all give another person access to your computer’s files. Examples include www.openp2p.com, www.zeropaid.com, and www.freewirep2p.com. Never P2P with someone unless you completely trust them.
Blogs are like public diaries that people can post comments on. In other words, the person who owns the blog can write about whatever they like and people can post whatever they want about that topic. There are usually few restrictions, and they are most often available to the public. Examples include www.blogger.com, www.blogwise.com, and www.blogsearchengine.com.
Also known as Bulletin Boards, these blog-like grids allow people to comment on multiple organized threads of conversation. You can search by category, and comment or read only on the topics you wish. Examples include www.myfreebulletinboard.com, www.phpbb.com, and www.myfastforum.org.
All of the above options are available in one complete package, and these special all-inclusive sites are growing in popularity. With these new all-purpose websites your children can create profiles of themselves, make a personal diary blog, post on bulletin boards, file share, and chat without downloading anything. Examples include www.friendster.com, www.myspace.com, and www.classmates.com. These functions are also available on free dating sites like www.okcupid.com, www.facethejury.com, and www.hotornot.com which are extremely appealing to teenagers.
To further compound the situation, online access has been extended to cell phones and video games as well. With a cell phone children can chat via text messaging with people from the bus on the way to school, in the bathroom between classes, and during a break at their after school job. A cell phone in a pocket is a constant connection with the internet.
Video games have joined the list of ways children can chat with people online as well. Many PC (personal computer) games are not just played against the computer, but against multiple people from around the world. These games, commonly referred to as MMO’s (massively multiplayer online games), have complete chat capabilities just like any other chat engine. This means all of the dangers of regular chat engines apply even when your children are playing a game. Simple online games have these features as well. Through Yahoo, MSN, Google, and AOL you can play well known games like Scrabble or Poker with other people. You can also chat with those people. Sometimes wagering options are also made available, so know that your child could be gambling online.
Consoles are currently joining PC’s in their online gaming capabilities as well. Several consoles such as the Xbox, Xbox 360, PS2, PS3, Revolution, and Gamecube are already equipped with hard drives giving them online access. So be aware. Just because your child is technically not playing a game in front of a computer, it does not mean they are safe from strangers.
There are many steps that you can take with your computer, video game consoles, and cell phones to prevent potential problems before they happen.
The first item to address is your home computer, which is probably most familiar to you. There are electronic and general common sense applications you can employ to keep everyone safe.
✓To protect you and your family electronically, make sure that your firewall is up and working properly.
✓Make sure your virus and malware programs are up to date. An abundance of adware and spyware can make your computer available to outsiders.
✓Learn about the parental controls that come with your ISP (internet service provider). If your ISP does not have parental controls, there is software available that will put those controls in place for you.
✓Many websites are also rated, and there is software available that will only allow websites with ratings you approve of to come through. The software will also block any unrated sites.
✓Create a “junk” email address for use with sites which require an email address. Do not attach any personal information to that email address. That way you and your child can use sites like these while decreasing the possibility of unwanted solicitors contacting you.
Opening a dialogue with your children about the internet rules you have decided is probably the best form of protection. Talk to other parents, teachers, librarians, or other individuals with regular online access for tips on how best to broach this subject.
✓Explain to your child that they must never give out any personal information such as names, credit card #’s, ages, their home address, their school’s name, telephone numbers, or any pictures of themselves or anyone they know.
✓If a name is required, encourage your child to invent an imaginative pseudonym commonly known as a “screen name,” or “user name.” Having different names for different websites is a great way to maintain anonymity, and can be a lot of fun!
✓Teach your children to never respond to any email that makes them feel uncomfortable in anyway. Just hit DELETE.
✓When your child encounters a website, email, or file that makes them feel uncomfortable, make sure they know they can come to you for help.
✓People you meet on the internet can be anybody from anywhere. It’s very easy to pretend to be someone you are not when the other person cannot see your face or hear your voice. Remind your children whoever they are talking to could be lying.
✓Remember the motto “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” Apply this idea to what people say, any offers they make, or things they try to sell you.
✓Never allow your child to meet face-to-face with someone they meet online without your permission, knowledge, and attendance.
✓Keep the computer in the family or living room so that the computer becomes a family activity. Since the computer is in a communal living space, children will feel less comfortable downloading or viewing inappropriate material.
✓Teach your children to never enter information into a website unless they see the little lock symbol on the bottom right corner of their screen. That symbol means the transaction is encrypted, and can’t be intercepted.
✓If you do decide to enter information into a website, make sure you uncheck any options at the bottom asking to send you information from various vendors. This will reduce the number of sites that know your contact information.
✓Meet your child’s online friends and get to know them as well as you know their real friends.
✓Ask your child to give you a tour of what sites they like to visit and how to use them. If the sites require a user name and password, learn them.
Most of these suggestions work well with video games and cell phones too. If your child’s cell phone is part of your family plan, check to see if free text messaging is part of the package, or if your child’s phone has web capabilities. All of these features usually require an extra charge so you can check on your bill to see if they are available or have been used.
Video games are rated now, just like movies. The ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) has a ratings system available right on the box so you can determine how mature the game is before you buy it.
If you suspect that your child may be experiencing some online trouble, here are a few suggestions on how to determine if there is a problem, and what to do if there is.
✓Ask. Sometimes the direct approach works best, and your child may appreciate you being up front with them.
✓Clock how often your child is spending time online. If they are spending a lot of time, especially late at night, it may be an indication that there is a problem.
✓Every website that is visited is recorded in a history folder. Learn how to access the history folder and view which sites your child has recently visited. Set administrative controls to make it impossible for your child to empty the history folder before you can check it.
✓Monitor your credit card bills for any unfamiliar charges. Many adult sites require credit card information as proof that the viewer is over 18.
✓Learn about cookies. A cookie is a piece of text that a web server can store on a user’s hard disk. Cookies allow a web site to store information on a user’s machine and later retrieve it. This is another great way to check where your child has visited.
✓Sporadically search your home computer for any pictures, sound files, or movies. This is easily done by searching for any file that ends in .mp3, .mpeg, .bmp, .wav, .mpeg, .gif, or .wma. To do this, simply type “*.mp3” in the search field to look for that type of file.
Above all, remember that no computer, video game console, or cell phone should be used as a babysitter. None of the above is good enough to replace parental supervision. For more information on computer and internet terms visit www.netlingo.com.
School staff and families…the more we work together, the more we’ll help our children.