All Teens Know About Internet Safety Nowadays… Right? (Part 1: Sexual Predators)

Who can argue against the benefits of the Internet? It expands our education and world in so many ways and allows us to share resources and ideas with people that have the same interests. Unfortunately, it can also expose children to unwanted information and danger. Middle Earth is going to explore Internet Safety in a two-part series. In this first installment, we will discuss sexual predators. Next week, we’ll hit upon online bullying and the unintended future consequences of posting information about yourself online.

CB104393The Problem

A recent research project by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children demonstrated the problem when teens (13 to 17 year olds) and the Internet mix:

  • 61% of 13- to 17-year-olds have a personal profile on social networking sites such as MySpace. Half have posted pictures of themselves online.
  • 30% have considered meeting someone they’ve only communicated with online and 14% have actually met face-to-face with a person they had known only through the Internet.
  • 45% have been asked for personal information by someone they don’t know.
  • When teens receive messages online from someone they don’t know, 40% usually reply to and chat with that person and only 18% of them said they tell a parent.
  • 20% of teens report that it is safe to share personal information on a public blog or networking site and 37% said they are not concerned about someone using information they’ve posted online in ways they don’t want.

A new study, published in the June issue of Pediatrics, shows that 40% of all 173 teen girls (age 14 to 17) in the study reported experiencing online sexual advances, and 26% reported meeting someone in person who they first met online. Interestingly, the same study found that the presence of a caregiver was associated with significantly fewer reports by adolescents of online solicitations.

The Solution

Adults need to be involved in the Internet lives of teens. Here are some ideas:

Teach children to be their own filter.

It is important to realize that filtering programs (software that blocks certain content from displaying on your computer) cannot protect a child from all dangers in cyberspace. Filtering programs are not a substitute for good judgment or critical thinking, so try to encourage youth to hone those skills. Along the same lines, we must help children to read between the lines. They need to know that although it can be fun to check out new people for friendship or romance, flattering or supportive messages may be more about manipulation than genuine friendship. While some people are nice, others act nice because they’re trying to get something. And not everyone may be who they say they are. Someone can tell you that she is a 16-year-old girl from Virginia, but in fact “she” could be a 42-year-old man in New Jersey. Which leads us to tip #2…

Insist children avoid in-person meetings.

Explain to teens that the only way someone can physically harm you is if you’re both in the same location, so – to be 100% safe – don’t meet them in person. There is simply no way to know if someone who is nice online is who they say they are. The only way a meeting could be acceptable is if the teen tells the parent, has the meeting in a public place, and brings some friends along.

Teach children to never share personal information, and more importantly, find out what the child classifies as personal information.

Most kids have heard from at least one adult to never share personal information online, but to them that means their address and phone number. Many children are quite willing to share their real name, age, school name and location, parents’ work places, friends’ names, etc. because they don’t actually believe that information could lead a potential predator to them. Additionally, it’s important that children’s screennames do not readily identify them as a child.

Encourage children to tell an adult when they encounter a problem online.

Children need to know it’s safe to tell an adult when they come across any information that makes them uncomfortable. This may seem intuitive to an adult, but many times children feel uncertain if something they have seen or done is their fault. They need to know that an adult will not blame them or take away their computer and will work with them to help avoid problems in the future.

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