April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, therefore I thought I would start off my first article discussing the importance of online/internet safety. Having worked as a prosecutor for many years and in the field of child crimes, I handled many cases that involved a computer, a criminal, and a child.
The first and most obvious step to take with your child, no matter the age, is to keep an open line of communication. No matter the issue, your child/ren should always feel that you are approachable and interested in any concerns or questions they may have. When it comes to internet safety, however, there are many more steps parents need to take to ensure their child’s safety. A 2013 Pew Research Study showed that teens are sharing more personal information on social networking sites than ever before (and this was a study from four years ago). Ninety-one percent of teens admit to posting a photo of themselves, and more than 70% post personal information about their school and town they live in. The good news is, that 60% of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private, and most reported high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings. For the five different types of personal information that the Pew Study measured in both 2006 and 2012, each was significantly more likely to be shared by teen social media users on the profile they use most often: 91% post a photo of themselves, up from 79% in 2006, 71% post their school name, up from 49%, 71% post the city or town where they live, up from 61%, 53% post their email address, up from 29%, and 20% post their cell phone number, up from 2%.
Additionally, websites that were traditionally used to buy or sell goods are also being used to buy and sell children, child sexual abuse images, and child sex trafficking. So, what does this tell us? If your child is on the Internet, you need to be monitoring their usage depending on their age, maturity, and knowledge. Again, communicate with your child, know what he/she is doing online, and why. You can set rules and discuss them so your child understands the importance of following the rules. Always be a role model with good Internet habits of your own since your child will tend to emulate your behavior.
Some basic rules for younger children include limiting their usage. Allow your child to have on-line time after school for a set period of time to message friends, play games, or visit social networking sites. After that, the computer can be turned off or only used for homework or school-related projects. Always keep younger kids in sight by placing the computer in a central family room of your house. Your child is more likely to browse appropriate sites if he/she knows that you may walk by or check on their internet site at any moment. And of course, do the research yourself by checking browser history, checking sites your child has visited, and vet all downloaded apps.
According to Scholastic.com, one out of every five kids gets sexual solicitations online. Many criminals target children, as their lack of knowledge makes it easier for predators to get personal information from their profiles. If posts aren’t marked as private, personal information can be displayed to the public and end up in the hands of a child predator. Be sure your child does not exchange personal information like a phone number, address, school, or picture. And most important, they should never meet a stranger in person- ever.
With older children, managing their time on their smart phones is as important, if not more, than their computers. In our home, we will from time to time review their “friend” list and if they don’t personally know a certain person or if a friend is actually a friend of a friend, we require them to remove that person from having access to their profile and posts. Additionally, from time to time, I will glance at their messages to keep abreast of whom they are communicating with and the general topic of their communication. Every now and again, I am happily surprised to see a girl telling my son she has a crush on him, or my daughter going out of her way to include a new student in a weekend activity. My point being, don’t be discouraged or worried that if you look at your child’s messages you will see something negative- our children often surprise us! Also, this is not a popularity contest so the number of contacts or “friends” your child has is not important.
Another thing I tell my kids is that they should not do anything online they wouldn’t do face to face with that person and to always remember that everything online is captured forever. Once they’ve posted something online they will never be able to permanently delete it. This is especially important for our older teens who are seeking college admissions or jobs. It is known that college admissions officers and employers look at social media profiles when researching applicants and employees.
Remember the cartoon featuring a dog near a computer and the caption reads, “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a Dog?” The exact same sentiment applies to child predators. Unless you personally know the person your child is chatting with, the seemingly 10 year old girl online could be a 60 year old man.
It is important to begin internet conversations with your children from an early age, in order to protect them from risks that they may not yet understand and to prepare them to face and manage any threats. As your kids get older, continue those conversations while adapting the topics to your children’s age and knowledge. And remember not to be bothered by all the additional supervision the internet requires of us parents. I have always taken the perspective that technology allows children to communicate with each other on a device that makes it much more suitable for a parent to monitor. Monitoring their device allows us to get a little peek into their world and find out who they’re talking with and what they’re talking about.
Finally, some words of advice: become friends and contacts in your child’s social media, remember to never allow your child to give their name, phone number, e-mail address, password, postal address, school, or picture without your permission, do not open e-mail from anyone they don’t know, do not respond to hurtful or disturbing messages, never get together with anyone they “meet” online, and never agree to a private chat with a stranger.
 Teens, Social Media, and Privacy, Pew Research Center, May 2013, http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-Social-Media-And-Privacy.aspx.
 Keeping Kids Safe Online, Scholastic, http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/your-child-technology/keeping-kids-safe-online.
Adena Astrowsky is a prosecutor and author of Mother of Souls, The Story of a Holocaust Survivor. She recently received an Amazing Women award from the Phoenix Suns and National Bank of Arizona for her professional and philanthropic work. She lives in Scottsdale with her husband and three children.