What’s concerning to Internet safety experts is that profiles almost always contain pictures as well as personal blogs.
“I used to advise parents to tell their children not to put pictures [of themselves] online. Nowadays, with the popularity of MySpace.com and other social networking sites, it’s a given that kids are going to put their picture on the Internet. What I now say is that if you’re going to do that, then watch what other information you put on,” says Larry Magid, CBS.com journalist, creator of SafeKids.com, and co-author of MySpace Unraveled: A Parents Guide to Teen Social Networking. For the uninitiated parent, a social networking site is an online community where kids can link up with their friends. They can create online journals—or blogs—containing entries about their favorite bands or school subjects. The children can keep their profiles private, but they can allow their “friends” to have access and then communicate with these selected friends. The problem, however, is that often teens allow friends of friends they don’t know, access to their profile—which can give them access to their blog and anything they have written in it.
“Some kids actually post their school name, their home town, where they hang out or, as in one case, someone actually posted their cell phone number,” explains Magid.
What this means, is that parents need to get involved and in ways that require more than a sentence warning their kids to not post personal information. It’s quite easy for a teen to reply, “I know, I know mom!” and yet still reply to a friend with personal details that other friends might be able to read. And, if the teen isn’t careful, she or he could have accepted a person into the network pretending to be a teen, but who is actually an adult predator.
“Even the kids who know the rules and who are careful can sometimes be placed in a vulnerable position,” says Magid. “Take this scenario: a friend posted a message to her friend saying: ‘Let’s meet at the KFC at 4 p.m.’ This appeared on her profile, so without her knowledge, a teen’s presence was posted online for a potential predator. That predator now knows what she looks like, and where she’ll be.”
As frightening as that scenario seems, teens can control this sort of mishap. By checking their profile daily, they can erase any messages that are posted in a public manner. And, they can also encourage all friends to post messages that only their accepted friends’ eyes can see. And of course, the best advice is to ask friends not to post anything about their whereabouts or their plans.
Here are some basic steps Magid has outlined to help you better protect your children from online predators:
- Never give out identifying information—home address, school name, or telephone number—in a public message such as chat or bulletin boards
- Be sure you’re dealing with someone that both you and your child know and trust before giving it personal information via email
- Get to know the services your child uses. If you don’t know how to log on, get your child to show you. Find out what types of information it offers and whether there are ways for parents to block out objectionable material.
- Never allow a child to arrange a face-to-face meeting with another computer user without parental permission. If a meeting is arranged, make the first one in a public spot, and be sure to accompany your child.
- Never respond to messages or bulletin board items that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, threatening, or make you feel uncomfortable. Encourage your children to tell you if they encounter such messages. If you or your child receives a message that is harassing, of a sexual nature, or threatening, forward a copy of the message to your service provider and ask for their assistance.
- Remember that people online may not be who they seem. Because you can’t see or even hear the person it would be easy for someone to misrepresent him- or herself. Thus, someone indicating that “she” is a “twelve-year-old girl” could in reality be a forty-year-old man.
- Set reasonable rules and guidelines for computer use by your children. Discuss these rules and post them near the computer as a reminder. Remember to monitor their compliance with these rules, especially when it comes to the amount of time your children spend on the computer. A child or teenager’s excessive use of online services or bulletin boards, especially late at night, may be a clue that there is a potential problem.
- Be sure to make this a family activity. Consider keeping the computer in a family room rather than the child’s bedroom. Get to know their “online friends” just as you get to know all of their other friends.