June 17, 2014 By Douglas Bonderud 5 min read

Kids are online. The Pew Research Internet Project says that 95 percent of children ages 12-17 use the Internet on a regular basis. What’s more, these kids don’t surf the Web the same way as their parents — meaning adults are often unaware just how much time their kids spend online, what children are looking at and, most importantly, how to keep them safe. It’s time to stop kidding around when it comes to Internet safety: Here’s what you need to know.

The Internet Safety Problem

Children know more about the Internet than their parents. IBM has previously shared research by the Berkman Center at Harvard University that 64 percent of teenagers have done things online they don’t want their parents to know about. And a survey by the Girl Scouts found that teen girls felt they could do things such as chat in a chat room (86 percent), engage in a cyber romance (54 percent) or view a sexually explicit site (42 percent) without adults knowing. Even if parents are closely monitoring their child’s Internet use, it can be difficult to find evidence of risk because kids have developed a kind of shorthand to prevent detection. For example, the acronym POS (parents over shoulder) is often used in social media or instant messaging (IM) conversations, tipping off a child’s friends that they shouldn’t write anything which could generate suspicion.

Mobile devices pose another problem. Common Sense Media found that 72 percent of kids up to the age of eight have used mobile devices, and last year 38 percent of children under two used a mobile device. Many parents purchase smartphones for kids in case of emergencies, but may not realize these devices also come with built-in Web browsers and the ability to download applications. These devices are often out of parents’ direct control, making it difficult to know who kids are talking to and what they’re talking about.

Information for Parents, Teachers and Community Members

So what are kids really doing with their time online? Pew Internet reported that 65 percent are using social networking sites, 68 percent are sending IMs, 59 percent are downloading music and 78 percent are playing games. Parents, meanwhile, do these same things roughly half as much as their kids, meaning they’re often behind the curve.

The easiest access kids have to information online is through search engines. Simply type in a word or phrase, and thousands of results pop up. Even if the search itself is innocent, some pages may contain mature content or links to sites that harbor malware or pornware. And with 63 percent of kids knowing how to hide searches from their parents, according to a Harris Interactive McAfee survey, it can be tough to keep track of what was searched and where it led.

Photo and video sharing websites (and applications) are also popular havens for young people. Kids simply create online profiles and start posting; in some cases, these sites aren’t monitored for inappropriate contact and almost all include the ability to “follow” other users or send messages directly.

Meanwhile, online gaming puts your child in contact with large groups of strangers. Many console games, especially first-person shooters (FPS), include a voice chat component, exposing children to a host of hateful or aggressive speech every time they play. Facebook and Twitter — social networks that saw 73 percent of teens create new profiles in 2010, up almost 20 percent from four years prior, according to Common Sense Media — are well-known for their ability to let users post status updates, photos and videos that are all tied to a profile containing personal information. As a result, these sites are ideal for lurking predators.

Real Risks

There’s no questions that kids are using the Internet, and that their time online covers a broad range of sites. But what does this mean for day-to-day Internet safety? What are the real risks?

First up is the big one: Pornography. In 2003, it was estimated that 90 percent of kids were exposed to sexual materials online. A study by Middlesex University London found that “a significant proportion of children and young people are exposed to or access pornography,” and that this exposure affects their sexual attitudes and beliefs. Some of this exposure is deliberate — kids are naturally curious and may seek out sexual materials, but much of it is accidental. Symantec found that 92 percent of the world’s e-mail is spam, and 2 percent of that spam is pornographic, meaning kids with email accounts could be receiving porn spam daily. Exposure may also happen when kids download music or video files which are in fact deliberately mislabeled pornography. Pop-up ads pose a risk as well because, unlike adults, children often click on brightly colored or flashing windows rather than closing them out of habit.

Photo and chat sites are also real risk factors. For example, the SnapChat app lets kids send photos to one another which are then deleted after a set period of time. The problem? It’s possible to “screenshot” pictures and keep a permanent copy, and earlier this year SnapChat’s database was hacked and it was discovered most of the image files had simply been renamed, not deleted. It’s no wonder, then, that Common Sense Media reports 39 percent of teens have posted something online they later regretted. Services such as Chatroulette, meanwhile, let kids connect and video chat with random strangers. Many teens don’t realize that Web camera videos can be recorded; what may start out as a dare could lead to blackmail or extortion.

The prevalence of social media is also a concern. Children often include their personal information when making Facebook profiles and may not properly set privacy controls, meaning their full name, date of birth, hometown and school could be public knowledge. Predators make fake profiles on social media sites and use them to connect with children by claiming they have similar friends or interests. From there, kids are “groomed” to trust their new friend, alienated from their parents and other adults and eventually encouraged to meet face-to-face. In some cases, this results in sexual assault or even death. Social media is also a hotbed for cyber bullying, with the Berkman Center at Harvard University reporting that 42 percent of kids have been bullied online and 35 percent reporting they’ve been threatened with physical harm. In combination with real-world harassment and IM conversations, this kind of aggression can lead to self-harm or suicide.

How Do Adults Make Sure Internet Safety Is a Top Priority?

With so many risks associated with online behavior, parents often feel that Internet safety is an impossible goal — especially because kids are one step ahead when it comes to technology. In fact, it’s possible to promote a safe environment even if you’re not particularly tech-savvy. It starts with laying down certain ground rules: No posting of personal information, and no pictures without parental approval. The next step is treating online friends like those in real life; if you can’t meet an IM buddy or Facebook friend in person, they need to be removed from your child’s friend list. Simplify this by making accounts on the same websites as your kids and keeping the home computer in a high-traffic area so its screen can’t be hidden.

Finally, be someone your child can come to with concerns. Your anger over an online misstep makes them less likely to report it to you, as does a focus on rare or hypothetical dangers. Treat the Internet like anything else in your child’s life — common sense rules and firsthand experience go a long way toward preventing big problems.

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