Think about those detective flicks from the noir genre that filled the 1950’s silver screens. There was snappy, hardboiled dialog, a damsel in distress and some sort of mysterious underworld. Situations were murky and no one was what they seemed. The good guys were bad, the bad guys were actually good and there was a new twist at every turn.
The world of the internet can be just as hard to navigate and decipher. And when it comes to kids’ safety, that’s just the way the baddies want it. As the house of mirrors at a seedy carnival, kids oftentimes don’t know what’s real and what’s not, who is out to be their friend and who is out to hurt them.
Why do kids fall prey to cyber-criminals and other online creeps?
Kids and teens, as tech-savvy as they are, don’t have the same critical thinking abilities as an adult. It’s in the frontal lobes of our brains that logical decisions are made and that area isn’t fully developed until a person reaches his or her mid 20’s. So it’s really no wonder that teens and kids need all the help and direction they can get in such murky territory. Teens especially are looking to be “understood” at this age and they don’t always have the critical thinking abilities to differentiate between “good connections” and dangerous ones. This is what leads to all the risky activities that we associate with experimentation in the formative years. With the pervasiveness of social media and texting, kids no longer need to put in much effort to go and seek out such activities – It’s all right there, at their fingertips.
As parents, educators, or mentors, we need to be “in the know” about what our kids may be faced with and how to talk to them to create a safe space. We may not want to monitor their every online move but we shouldn’t be burying our heads in the sand either. Here are some prevalent and scary online threats we should all be aware of to keep our kids safe.
Cyberbullying – Cyberbullying is the use of social media, texting, and emails to send messages of threatening or intimidating nature. The trend has been on the increase for the last few years and Nobullying.com reports that in 2014, 25% of teens were victims of cyberbullying. A study conducted by Yale University found that teens who were the victim of bullying were 7 – 9% more likely to consider suicide than other teens. And according to nobullying.com “Cyberbullying leads to thoughts of suicide more than traditional bullying.”
Online predators – The world is filled with creeps who try to harm kids, and the internet is no different – it just makes it easier to find and lure innocent victims. An article by the Washington Post tells of a teen who posted a picture of herself on Snapchat from her phone. Her location function was enabled and a few days later a man she didn’t know showed up at her door, photo in hand, looking for her. The girls’ mother, who answered the door, called the police. The police came but there was nothing much they could do so the stranger left. Creepy yes, but it’s not against the law to be creepy.
Kids and teens must be aware that they should never believe anyone they “meet” on social media. The countless reports of children being drawn into dangerous situations by “friends” whom they had never actually met are appalling. A report conducted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center found that one in five teens has received unwanted sexual requests on the internet. According to sharedhopeinternational.com, an international anti-trafficking organization, one in 20 children admitted to arranging a secret meeting with someone they met online. And according to toptenreviews.com, 67% of teenagers say they know how to hide what they do online from parents.
Identity theft – In the same vein, unsuspecting kids will give information to just about anybody on the internet. A survey by Emarketer.com showed that 75% of kids don’t see any problem with sharing personal information in return for goods and services. Children as the target for online identity theft is a phenomenon that’s spreading like wildfire according to the Huffington Post because criminals realize that these young people don’t have any sort of credit history – They are essentially clean slates and often go unchecked for years at a time – A crook’s dream come true. According to consumer.ftc.gov “A child’s Social Security number can be used by identity thieves to apply for government benefits, open bank and credit card accounts, apply for a loan or utility service, or rent a place to live.”
Downloading dangerous material – You know to never open links in emails and to be wary of banner ads that can potentially infect your PC but do your kids? Again, that frontal lobe isn’t quite developed yet – Their decisions are largely based on the “here and now”. When they get an emailed link or see a message telling them “Congrats! You just won the $10 million lottery! Click here to claim your prize!” chances are, logic gets tossed aside and they click the banner or open the link. Again, according to consumer.ftc.org, make sure kids know to “watch out for “free” stuff. Free games, ring tones, or other downloads can hide malware. Tell your kids not to download anything unless they trust the source and they’ve scanned it with security software.” Often times these programs sit at the back of your computer and collect information about you and your family’s browsing habits and more. The information is given over to third parties to use for their own benefit.
So just what can we do to keep kids safe?
The key is to talk to your kids and create open lines of communication. According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, 20% of parents do not supervise their kids internet habits at all and “close to 62% of teens say their parents know little or nothing about the websites they visit”. Even if you think your kids don’t want to be bugged about it, internet safety rules are just as important as the age-old rules of “looking both ways before you cross the street” and “never talking to strangers” are.
Here are some things you can do as a parent to keep your kids safe online:
- Ask your kids to teach you about things that they know more about on the internet and establish a rapport.
- Get them thinking in critical ways and to analyze information.
- Ask them scenario-based questions to get them thinking, like “What would you do if someone asked to meet IRL (in real life),” “What do you do if someone emails you a link?” etc.
- Teach them how to use the privacy and preference settings on their mobile devices and to never share information with anybody, even if they think they are friends. Make sure the parental settings on their devices are set at the proper level.
- Monitor kids time online
- Establish house rules
- Enable a strong malware scanner
- Set up some sort of internet filter
Be frank but never threatening. Don’t lose sight of the fact that there is so much good to be gained on the internet. Communication, as with so many things in life, is the key to keeping your kids safe online.