Online Safety: Bad things can happen to Good children

By Guest Blogger Christopher Burgess

In David Schwimmer’s TRUST, bad things happen to Annie, a good child.  She is by all appearances a typical teenager – totally wired, online and available, 24/7/365.  As the typical teen, the online interaction includes those with whom she has a personal relationship with a physical quotient: her best friends, family members, and school acquaintances.  She also has availed to her an increased circle of acquaintances about whom her knowledge is limited to their projected online personas.

In the physical world, parents see with whom their child interacts.  As the parents witness this interaction they are able to help guide and influence their child’s choices.  Overtime, the maturation of the child’s decision making skills demonstrates absorption of the lessons, principals and ethics of the parent. The child displays good decision making skills and the level of trust bestowed upon the child and their range of movement may be increased.

Within the online world, it isn’t that different.  The parents continue to have the responsibility to see with whom their child interacts both within their own community and beyond. Though alien for so many parents of today’s teens and tweens, the totally wired child is interacting at a pace which far outstrips the physical world interaction, while not being as easily observable by the parent.

Parents must assist their child online as they do offline.  Parents must be able to note whom their child is engaging and perform the necessary due diligence on the individual.  The parent must also be able to note the frequency and modes of this communication with the “online friends.”  The most important rule to follow when navigating between the online and physical world is when the online friend suggests moving the relationship from virtual to physical.  The number one rule for every family: “The child must not engage in any personal meetings with an individual whom they have only met online without explicit parental permission.

It is not espionage to know who is reaching out and engaging your child.  When you have a friend pick up your child at school, there is a high likelihood that challenge-words are used between the child and the friend to provide assurance to the child that they can safely get into the vehicle with the parent’s designee.  If an individual approached your child without the challenge-words, your child would react in the manner in which you instructed: “shout and run to the largest number of persons in proximity.”  In the online environment the opportunity for private engagement with your child by an unknown individual is increased by an immeasurable capacity.  The individual child can be engaged by anyone in the world, with an internet connection.

So many attribute their lack of desire to look into what their child is doing online to their desire to trust their child.  One should trust their child, but that level of trust shouldn’t extend to an individual about who so little is known – the online acquaintance and their online persona.  Parents can and should do their own due diligence on those at the other end of the online connection.  Parents can observe and monitor frequency and modes of contact.  In addition to the “no meeting” rule, the next most important rule is all online interaction will occur from a centralized (observable) locale (the laptop in the bedroom should never occur).

The parent can also advantage themselves to any of the numerous software offerings which will provide the internet protocol (IP) addresses with who their devices are engaged.  In this manner, the parent can note all interactions and highlight those worthy of further investigation. If your child’s interlocutor is coming into contact with your child from a variety of geographically diverse locales, that should be considered anomalous and worthy of deeper inspection.  If the child has their own device (laptop or desktop), then you may desire to put a time limit on when the device is allowed to access the internet (in the physical world, when the child leaves the home the parent knows where they are going, who they will be with and when they are expected to return) via regulating the router access.

Mobile telephony is often overlooked.  This is a means by which a child may circumvent the safety net provided by their parents within their home.  Text (SMS) messages, video messages, photos, emails, and chat are all a part of the normal offering from today’s smart phones and warrant the same level of observation provided to the devices within the home.  With respect to mobile devices one can review the device itself and also review the billing and call records in the same manner one would for the IP addresses.  Again, there is available a plethora of applications designed to lock-down and regulate the areas of the accessible internet writ-large for mobile devices.

The protection of your children is important.  You can honor their privacy and enhance their protection by guiding your child in the online world just as you would in the physical world.  In doing so, you will greatly reduce the opportunity for a malevolent person from making the adage “bad things to happen to good children” a reality.

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