The Real Online Threat

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The Real Online Threat

In almost every newspaper, magazine, and online parenting site you’ll find articles about how to protect children from online sexual predators. For baby boomer or Gen-X parents who didn’t grow up with the Internet this seems like good advice. But did you know that the chances of children being abducted or victimized by a stranger they meet online is quite slim? Our children who are growing up online are pretty savvy. By the time they are thirteen or fourteen, they’ll have heard many, many times to never give out personal information to strangers. By the time your toddler is in middle school, it’s very likely that his or her school will actually hold courses on online etiquette. But even if your child does publish detailed information, this will not likely result in victimization, according to David Finkelhor, director of Crimes Against Children Research Center. During the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee Forum called Just the Facts About Online Youth Victimization, Finkelhor and other experts outlined statistics showing the real online dangers. And, not too surprisingly, it’s the children themselves.

“Our research, actually looking at what puts kids at risk for receiving the most serious kinds of sexual solicitation online, suggests that it’s not giving out personal information that puts kid at risk. It’s not having a blog or a personal Web site that does that either. What puts kids in danger is being willing to talk about sex online with strangers or having a pattern of multiple risky activities on the web like going to sex sites and chat rooms, meeting lots of people there, kind of behaving in a matter we call the “internet daredevil.”

We think that in order to address these crimes and prevent them, we’re gonna have to take on a lot more awkward and complicated topics that start with an acceptance of the fact that some teens are curious about sex and are looking for romance and adventure and
take risks when they do that. We have to talk to them about their decision making if they are doing things like that,” Finkelhor told the audience.

Rachel Dretzin, the producer and director for a Frontline special entitled, Growing Up Online, agrees that kids pose the greatest threat to each other online. Her documentary shows how children can lead other “cyber lives” by adopting online identities and sometimes risky behavior. Other children can fall prey to cyber bullies.

“I personally think kids might not be mature enough to handle it (the Internet). When is it too much for them? … There is a heartbreaking story in the film of a thirteen-year-old kid who killed himself after being bullied online for months,” says Dretzin.

A few days after I interviewed Dretzin by phone, I read that seven teens had killed themselves in Britain after conversing about suicide and getting memorial profile pages on Bebo, a UK social networking site.

I watched Dretzin’s amazing Frontline documentary and it shed light on so many things. First, the Internet, MySpace, Facebook, Webkinz and Club Penguin aren’t the enemies. Social networking, blogging, and chatrooms will not go away and children will want to explore. It’s easier to talk to a computer than to others face to face. On a blog, children can post their favorite music, videos, and books and reach out to others or talk about personal problems or issues that they might not do otherwise. In some ways it can provide a creative and cathartic outlet. But when children are too young for this, they can be swayed, especially by the bullies who become much more aggressive online. A pretty girl might giggle and walk away from a shy boy who says hi—and likely not be mean to him face to face. Online, that same pretty girl may behave in ugly ways—even taunt and tease and say horrible things. Kids can post lies about each other—or even post things pretending to be someone else to start rumors. In the world of junior high, this is big stuff—and stuff that parents will have little to no knowledge that their children might be dealing with.

So, how do we help our kids navigate this brave, new world? Dretzin, also a mom of three, outlined what she has learned from her research and from her personal life:

1. Don’t put computers in your children’s rooms.

2. It’s okay to read your children’s email and blogs and chats until they are older. “At thirteen, a child doesn’t need privacy yet. This isn’t a diary,” Dretzin says. She adds that she lets her children know that she plans to read their emails and will continue to do so until they are fifteen years old—when she feels they’ll be old enough to make mature choices.

3. Talk about social networking and set age limits. These sites weren’t designed for thirteen-year-olds, but as any parent of multiple children will tell you, little sisters and little brothers grow up fast and are exposed to lots of things before they should be. Dretzin says she’ll let her children explore social networking sites when they are in seventh grade, but with “strict parental supervision.” She says children shouldn’t be allowed to converse unsupervised in these networks until they are in high school as middle school kids aren’t mature enough to handle bullying or chatting about death and suicide. If you think your younger children might be exposed to this while at other houses, talk about it with them and explain your fears calmly.

4. Understand if your teen creates another persona online—and don’t jump to conclusions that this means your teen is in grave danger. Having a blog is a creative outlet and as long as you feel your child isn’t posting private information or inappropriate information, go with it. In many ways, this is a creative outlet for them and a way for you to get to know them better. Just be upfront with them that you plan to read their blogs.   

5. Try to remain a parent that your child can turn to. Keep communication lines open. And above all, remain calm when talking with them.

I think the point that came across the most in Dretzin’s documentary is that the Internet is just an outlet—a conduit for kids. Kids are the same today as they were thirty years ago. As parents we still have the main responsibility to raise children who are respectful of others. If a child has little respect for differences in race or culture or has little empathy for those with less—that child will behave poorly online. Perhaps even more so as children in Dretzin’s documentary admit that being online gives them the ability to hide behind a screen and say things they otherwise might not. We need to be aware, not terrified, and help our children navigate this world. What we can’t do is leave them alone for hours on end with a computer screen beckoning in their bedrooms—with little to no preparation for the world they are entering.

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