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by Linda Childers
Mary Ryan* of Antioch never realized that her 11-year-old daughter was the victim of cyber bullying. For several months, the tween had received taunting messages from several of her classmates via e-mail and on her cell phone. It wasn’t until her daughter tearfully refused to go to school that Ryan discovered her daughter was being bullied online.
We parents are aware of the many ways kids are plugged into their peers these days, with Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, texting and old-fashioned instant messaging.
But what we may not be aware of is that cyber bullying is currently one of the biggest problems facing children who use the Internet, says Steve DeWarns, a Bay Area police officer and founder of Internet Child Safety (internetchildsafety.net), a private company that teaches Internet safety to parents and children throughout the state.
Cyber bullying – using the relative anonymity and ease of online communication to be hurtful – affects children as young as 7 and up through high school. Luckily, schools and law enforcement agencies have begun to take it as seriously as “traditional” bullying and harassment, DeWarns says. (In the case of Ryan’s daughter, the cyber bullies were suspended from school.)
“We have definitely seen an increase in cyber bullying since children have learned they can lash out at someone online without revealing their identity,” DeWarns says. “While posting photos and comments online on sites such as YouTube, MySpace, etc., they see how their taunts can go ‘viral’ with millions of hits from other viewers.”
Yet, cyber bullying is only one of many safety concerns facing children online. DeWarns says many predators have left the playground and have moved into online chat rooms to seek victims. Children can mistakenly believe they are talking to another child while they are playing games online, when in fact they may be talking to an adult who is pretending to be a juvenile. In May, a 44-year-old Mt. Diablo Unified School District employee was arrested after she made inappropriate contact with minor boys through the Xbox 360 Live gaming console.
With more and more children using the Internet – a recent survey by the Nielson Company found that approximately 16 million U.S. children between the ages of 2 to 11 are active online – DeWarns encourages parents to take an active role in their children’s Internet use, which includes monitoring their kids’ online activities and installing parental controls.
While parents typically caution their children not to speak to strangers and promote other safety rules within their family, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that only three in 10 young people say they have family rules about computer use.
“I advise parents to read the policies/security and reporting-abuse features that are listed on any website their children are visiting,” DeWarns says. “This way, if there is a problem they know how to respond and where to send their complaints.”
DeWarns also recommends limiting your child’s time online, especially on any social networking or gaming sites.
“Limits need to be in place so that children don’t become dependent on forming relationships solely through online services,” he says. “Children should be encouraged to form friendships through face-to-face contacts they have in the real world such as school and sporting teams.”
Parents should also caution their children about the amount of personal information they reveal online.
“Your child should never tell someone they meet online their name, where they live or where they attend school,” DeWarns says. “In addition, if your child is on Facebook or MySpace, you need to remember there is no such thing as ‘private.’ You can only limit access to your information online.”
Many children never bother to set up their privacy controls on social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook, DeWarns says.
“All too often, kids get caught up in the popularity contest of seeing how many Facebook or MySpace friends they can obtain,” he explains. “They will friend just about anyone that makes a request, even if they don’t personally know who they are, just to have bragging rights to 250 friends.”
Tracy Mooney is no stranger to cyber crimes. The mother of three who serves as Chief Cyber Security Mom for McAfee, a Santa Clara-based company specializing in online security, learned about cyber safety the hard way when one of her children inadvertently downloaded a computer virus destroying all the files on the family’s PC.
“Kids unintentionally give away so much personal information online: their name, address, school, sometimes even their passwords,” Mooney says. “I recommend that all parents talk to their kids about what is okay to do online and what isn’t, and to consider using technology to help when appropriate. Make sure you have a comprehensive anti-virus suite including a firewall, that it is installed, current and set to update automatically.”
Mooney also recommends management tools such as McAfee Family Protection that is customizable and can block kids from giving out personal information online, such as a cell phone number.
Another security option for parents is SafetyWeb, a real-time monitoring service that allows parents to see their children’s online acitivity and was developed by Geoffrey Arone, a father of two and co-CEO of SafetyWeb, based in San Francisco.
For younger children, Mooney advises parents to emphasize the importance of password protection.
“By elementary school, kids are using the Internet and should learn a password that they can remember but that others can’t guess,” she says. “They should also be taught not to share their password with anyone, even their best friend.”
For older children, Mooney recommends having a conversation about cyber bullying.
Sharon Tallon*, a San Mateo mom, ended up having that discussion with her 13-year-old son when she saw, on her own Facebook account, that he “liked” a group that didn’t ring quite right. When she herself went to the group’s page, she saw it had been set up by a peer of her son’s with the sole purpose of harassing an unpopular classmate.
“I was appalled, not only that some kid would do that to another kid, but that my own son was involved,” Tallon says. She had a hard talk with her son, who she says was properly contrite afterward, and told the school’s vice principal the next day. The student who had set up the page was suspended, and the other kids who “liked” that page were disciplined – including Tallon’s son.
Mooney agrees that there are many teachable moments when it comes to cyber safety. “Whenever a story makes the news about a victim of cyber bullying, I talk about the subject with my kids,” she says. “I remind them they should never mistreat others – if they aren’t willing to say something in person, they shouldn’t say it online. Make sure that if anyone hurts their feelings or makes them feel uncomfortable online, they should let you know.”
Arone also advises parents to be aware of online applications on social networking sites that allow kids to tag their posts with GPS locations.
“When you log into Twitter, it asks you if you would like to share location information,” Arone says. “In fact, many cameras, mobile phones and other programs capture and share this information automatically. Parents need to be aware of the privacy and location-sharing settings for these and other services if they don’t want their child’s location randomly being broadcast.”
Most Internet safety experts agree that keeping kids safe online is a joint effort between parents, kids and social networking sites.
For children over the age of 13, Facebook contains a number of built-in safeguards to protect minors who use the site, including default privacy settings that are more restrictive than those for adults. Facebook spokeswoman Marian Heath says the website also encourages parents to caution their child not to accept friend requests from people they don’t know, to customize their privacy settings and to block people as needed.
“We prohibit children under the age of 13 from using Facebook to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act,” Heath says. “Going beyond what the law requires, the question of when is the appropriate time for kids to join Facebook is not only one of age, but rather an issue of what each family feels comfortable with for their children.”
In June, Facebook announced it has begun working with the national Parent-Teacher Association to establish a comprehensive program to provide information, support and news to encourage good citizenship online, reduce cyber bullying and advance Internet safety and security. The new online information center will be designed to promote safe and responsible Internet use for children, parents and teachers. More information can be obtained at pta.org.
Linda Childers is a calendar editor at Bay Area Parent and a mother of a 12-year-old.
*Not her real name
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