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How To Protect Your Children From Online Predators
The internet has become a juggernaut in society after only a few decades of availability in private residences. It is incredibly easy for a person to get lost, or found, among the billions and billions of bytes of data flowing through cyberspace every second. It doesn't take a computer savvy predator or a career criminal to locate, converse with, and eventually arrange a face-to-face meeting with a child or young teenager (or even a vulnerable adult). In fact, it is much easier now than it has ever been.
Twenty to twenty-five years ago, when I first became aware of the internet and all its wondrous potential, it seemed as though the only way you could connect (unless you were a hacker) to cyberspace was through an online service such as America Online, Prodigy, or CompuServe. Individual ISPs were almost unheard of and were just getting their foot in the door of the internet access boom. The Big Three (AOL, Prodigy, and CompuServe) had a huge draw for subscribers primarily for the chat rooms. You could spend hours talking to complete strangers about any topic under the sun, or create a private chat room for yourself and your friends. Chatting online was a new and quick way for long-distance friends and family to remain connected with each other without having the expense of a phone call or the time-consuming process of mailing a letter. It was as simple as a click...
*beep beep boop boop beep beep beep beep boop*
* screeee waaaahhh scroooo screeeee waaaahhhhh*
..........Welcome...........You've Got Mail..........
Now that access to the internet is almost as readily available as access to water and electricity, cyberspace has become a virtual playground for internet predators. It's easy to log in to the internet anonymously, create an online persona that has nothing to do with the 'real' you, and go fishing for prey with almost no bait at all. Children as young as six and seven spend time on the internet these days, often unmonitored by their parents, who are now using the internet as their babysitters instead of the "that is SO yesterday" television set.
Chatting online has also become extremely widespread and simple, without being restricted to chat rooms anymore. Online games have chat functions and private messaging systems. Social networking sites allow for private messages and chat sessions. Almost everyone has an email address these days, including children.
How can you, as a responsible parent, do what you can to protect your child from becoming a victim of an online predator?
Make sure you know what your child is doing online. You don't have to stand over their shoulder and supervise every click of the mouse or keystroke on the keyboard, but computer operating systems come with parental controls, and you can download programs that allow you to review logs of what has been done, visited, or typed with a computer.
Educate your child about the internet and the people they might come into contact with. Don't let them engage in online chat with someone that hasn't been approved by you first. This includes "school friends" that you might not know. If it's not a family member, tell your child that you would like to meet their school friend and possibly speak with that child's parents first before you allow them to chat online. Let your child know that there are some bad people on the internet that will lie about who they are and try to befriend your child. The adage not to take candy from strangers applies to candy in cyberspace, as well.
If your child plays any online games, familiarize yourself with the game and check to see if the game has parental controls to limit or restrict chat. (Wizard 101 is an excellent example of a game geared for a younger audience that has parental controls.) A predator can obtain a child's telephone number or home address via chat in an online game as easily as they can in a chat room.
Emphasize to your child that they are never, never, never to give out personal information like their full name, telephone number, address, email address, or other private data unless they have your express permission to do so first. Tell them that if anyone asks for that type of information, they are to stop what they are doing on the computer and let you know immediately.
Limit the amount of time your child spends on the internet every day. I spend ten to eighteen hours per day on the internet, which is excessive. A child should spend that amount of time on the internet in a couple of weeks, not a few days. Do not allow your child to use the computer when you aren't home. If you are worried about their ease of access, put passwords on your computer (and on the child's log-in account) and do not let the child have the password, so that they have to get you to log them in when they are allowed to use the internet.
Basically, be an involved and concerned "hands on" parent. Let your child know that you love them and that you are primarily concerned for their well-being and safety, and teach them how to be safe in cyberspace.