By Mariann Young, Ph.D., CBIST
Director of Pediatric and Young Adult Services, Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers
The internet has changed the way we communicate. It has opened the world to children and teens. Information is a key stroke away, and the days of encyclopedias and other reference books are long gone. Young people communicate with friends, family and gamers who may live in the neighborhood, another state, or on the other side of the world.
As parents or caregivers, the question is: “How can we keep kids safe with unlimited and anonymous information available?” A good way to begin is to understand the different ways in which online communication can be used to harm another person.
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers or tablets. Some common forms are:
- Posting online comments or rumors that are mean, hurtful, or embarrassing.
- Threatening to hurt someone or telling them to kill themselves.
- Posting a mean or hurtful picture or video.
- Posting online any mean or hateful names, comments, or content about any race, religion, ethnicity, or other personal characteristic.
- Creating a mean or hurtful webpage about someone.1
Cyberstalking is the use of technology, particularly the internet, to harass someone. Common characteristics of cyberstalking include false accusations, monitoring, threats, identity theft and data destruction or manipulation. Sometimes people casually use the word “stalking” to describe following someone on social media. This is not the same as cyberstalking which is a crime and usually involves an adult.
Catfishing is a method of cyberstalking. This is when the user poses as someone else by using fake names, photos and locations.2
Child Sex Offenders
Statistics provided by the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System reflect a true decline in reported child sexual abuse since the 1980s. This being said, there is abuse that is facilitated via technology.
Some statistics include:
- Approximately one in seven youth internet users receive unwanted sexual solicitations.
- One in 25 youths received an online sexual solicitation in which the solicitor tried to make offline contact.
- Only five percent of predators lie about their ages. Most offenders told the victims that they were older males seeking sexual relations.
- Eleven percent of teenagers say they have shared nude pictures of themselves online or via text message. Of those, 26 percent do not think that the person to whom they sent the nude pictures shared them with someone else.3 This can lead to another internet concern: Sextortion. Sextortion is threatening to share nude photos to the public that were originally sent privately unless money or sexual favors are provided.
Internet-connected devices are becoming increasing popular, and hackers may breach the privacy of children and their families. CloudPets, a producer of internet-connected toys, suffered a security breach that exposed the login details of nearly a million customers. Recordings created by the toys became accessible to hackers. Fisher Price was also hacked, exposing the names and birthdates of children using their internet connected toys.
How Can We Keep Our Kids Safe when Using the Internet?
For suggestions, we turned to Brandon Roscoe, Vice President of Information Technology at Rainbow Rehabilitation Centers, for a Q & A on this topic.
Many parents allow their children as young as one year old to use the internet for games and activities. Is there an age range when kids should be allowed to use the internet for YouTube, Baby Einstein and other sites?
Recent data from child internet advocacy experts shows that the average age for kids to start using the internet is three years old, and kids spend double the time online than their parents think they do.4
The internet is an amazing educational, developmental, and entertainment resource for minds of all ages, and the key to healthy use is to set content and consumption ground rules that make sense.
According to Dr. Aric Sigman, a leading psychologist, “The problem with this generation is that we accept there should be limits on the consumption of many things, such as sunlight or sugar and salt, but screen time is not something that is thought of as consumption. What parents often assume is a benign pastime is their main waking activity, and the sheer amount of time that children spend at screens can lead to increased risk of physical disease as well as psychosocial issues.” 4
In reading much of the literature, authors recommend that parents know more than their kids to keep them safe on the internet. Is this a reasonable thing to expect of parents? It seems that kids are more current and experienced than parents can hope to be.
It is reasonable but can sometimes seem overwhelming! The good news is that it does not have to be. There are many websites, educational experts, and parent groups out there to help you guide your child in our awesome online world. Websites such as connectsafely.org and safekids.com are great free online resources for the modern parent.
A good strategy, and one I used, was to develop a “road map” of my child’s online/ electronic privileges by age range. Every couple of years I determine what I am going to let them do at each age range (3-5, 6-8, 9-12, 13-16, and so forth), educate myself on the current trends in the environment, and institute what I feel are appropriate home policies or safeguards.
Technology keeps advancing. There are plenty of bad guys out there looking to exploit that change to get access to our children, so parents need to have a plan to keep their kids healthy and safe online.
Some articles recommend checking history, applications, and monitoring texts. Are there other things that you can suggest to keep kids safe? What are your thoughts about checking an app with a short lifetime such as SnapChat? Is there any way to monitor those?
I agree with those recommendations and monitor those services for my children. Sobering data shows that 75 percent of children are willing to share private information with people online for services, information, or attention.5
The key to prevention and detection of problems is to create a multi-layer defense for your kids. Suggested layers can be as simple as educating your children on the risks of online predators, setting time usage guidelines, or installing programs that limit and report on specific activities or suspected threats. Products like Norton Family or Qustodio (which I use) can be a big time saver and give you some peace of mind. Let’s face it, your kids are going to push the limits you set.
When it comes to applications like SnapChat, one of the biggest issues is that kids have been taught a myth (through word of mouth) that these apps are “safe” due to their short screen lifetime. Teaching your kids how easy it is to take a permanent screen shot of an Instagram picture or to copy an image with another phone can help them think outside the box to better protect themselves from unseen trouble.
There are many resources for parents and care givers to protect their children online. Great applications that can help are:
- Norton Family
- Video Monster
- Great Internet Safety sites (with tutorials for kids):
Safekids.com Internetsafety101.org Connectsafely.org
- Parents’ Guide for Instagram:
- Parents’ Guide for SnapChat:
Although this article is on internet safety, it is important to conclude with a paragraph on children’s mental health. The single best predictor of healthy emotional interactions is face-to-face communications.
A new study found that 30 percent of children first play with mobile devices while they are still in diapers, almost 40 percent of two to four year olds use a smartphone, MP3 player, or tablet. Preschoolers spend 4.6 hours per day using screen media.6 The numbers increase phenomenally with each age group. Families stated that they spend less time socializing and in family time due to the increase in internet time.
If our children lose the opportunities to have face-toface time, how will they learn to become emotional and caring adults—people who are able to empathize and put themselves in another’s shoes? This is just one reason to create “unplugged” times. The influence of a parent, caregiver or family cannot be underestimated even in this digital world.7
- https://www.bestvpn.com/internet-safety Accessed Feb. 8, 2018
- https://us.norton.com/internetsecurity-how-to-how-to-protect-yourselffrom-cyberstalkers. Accessed February 12, 2018
- http://www.nsopw.gov/en-us/educationFactsStatistics? AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1. Accessed Feb. 13, 2018
- https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/10029180/Childrenusing-internet-from-age-of-three-study-finds.html. Accessed Feb. 13 2018
- http://www.puresight.com/Pedophiles/Online-Predators/onlinepredators-statistics.html#source6. Accessed March 28, 2018
- http://www.screenfree.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/ screentimefs.pdf. Accessed February 13, 2018
- Unselfie Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Borba, Michele Ed.D. New York: Touchstome, 2016