Living in a more connected world has many benefits. However, it also opens up entirely new areas of concern for parents. Kids today are exposed to violent and sexually graphic materials to a degree never seen before. This is largely due to the Internet being part of everyday life. No single agency controls the Net. As a result, there is a bit of an 'anything goes' flavour to it. To help your children navigate the Internet minefield safely, you must understand the risks.
Perhaps the best place to start is by watching what your kids do online. Children interact with the Internet in so many ways. Many are introduced to the web at school, using it for research and homework. Web 2.0, also known as the 'participatory' web, has rapidly expanded in the last several years through social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Users post information, keeping up to date with friends and other contacts.
Instant messaging and texting on cell phones are very popular. Kids can quickly and easily send short messages to friends on their contact list. Chat rooms, virtual worlds, and online gaming are other ways to interact in cyberspace. Many of these technologies are eagerly embraced as a way to portray a social identity, especially by older children and teens. Once, kids used clothing, music and their friends to make a statement about themselves. Now they can do the same thing with a blog, a Facebook profile picture, wall posts, and a friend list.
Of great concern to most parents is the easy, and often unintended, access to sexually explicit, violent, or hateful material on the Internet.
Kids are naturally curious about sexuality. They often turn to the Internet for answers. Unfortunately, the pornography industry is alive and well on the Internet. It drives a significant amount of web traffic. There are likely millions of porn sites around the world, all easily reached with a few clicks of a mouse. According to a 2007 Alberta study, 90 per cent of teen boys and 70 per cent of teen girls have seen sexually explicit material on the Internet at least once. Most of the time, they do not even have to try to find it.
Sexual and violent material often pops up without any attempt to seek it. In fact, kids must often actively reject this material and make decisions about what is and is not appropriate. Content filters available with many search engines (like Google and Yahoo), Internet service providers, and computer operating systems can help. However, they are by no means foolproof. Openly discussing these issues with your children is essential to helping them understand healthy relationships and sexuality.
Online sexual predators are obviously a huge concern for many parents. Hundreds of incidents of child luring are reported in Canada each year. Research suggests that 13 to 15 year-old girls are most vulnerable, but kids of all ages are at risk. Cyber stalking often occurs in chat rooms and through instant messaging, with real-time back and forth chatting. Stalkers flatter kids with compliments, affection and kindness, trying to set up face-to-face meetings. Children at highest risk online also tend to be those at highest risk offline. Be wary if your child spends a lot of time online alone, or is receiving calls, mail, gifts or packages from someone you do not know. Often, these kids withdraw from friends and family.
In recent years 'sexting' has started to become more common with young people. This involves exchanging sexual, nude, or provocative images and texts via cell phone. Kids may send this type of information without thinking about the possible consequences. Out in cyberspace, information has an incredibly long shelf life. It can be re-sent very easily. Depending on who is involved, it may also be illegal. In some cases in the U.S., sexting between teens has resulted in child porn charges being laid.
Discuss the risks. Make sure your child knows never to give out personal information online.
The Internet has created an entirely new arena for targeting and bullying. Cyber bullying is very real and very distressing for any child. It differs from face-to-face bullying in that it is public, relentless, and often anonymous. It takes many forms, including instant messaging, e-mail, and social networking sites. Some kids who engage in cyber bullying also bully peers face-to-face, but a surprising majority do not. This suggests that kids will do things on the Internet that they would never say or do in person.
Privacy issues have become a great concern to Internet users. Kids tend to be somewhat naïve about these issues. They do not understand the hazards of sharing too much personal information online. Commercial websites are very good at gleaning as much personal information as possible, and many kids are only too willing to supply it. This allows highly directed marketing, much of it geared to children. Social networking sites allow and encourage users to complete an online profile. Your child's profile may contain a large number of private details. Unless privacy filters are set, all of this information is widely visible and accessible.
Online gaming is very popular. Over half of all Canadian children play games online regularly, using a computer, cell phone, tablet, or game machine. Consider how much time your child spends on this activity. If online gaming is taking the place of sleep or physical activity, health problems may develop.
If the computer is replacing time spent with family and friends, a sense of isolation can result. As well, many online games are violent and may be psychologically damaging. Players may lose their sensitivity to violence if they are repeatedly exposed to such games.
Google Family Safety Centre
Media Awareness Network
Kids in the Know™
Canadian Centre for
So, what is a concerned parent to do? Locking up the home computers and cancelling your Internet service may seem appealing. However, it will do little to prevent kids from getting online. A better plan is to teach your children to navigate the web safely on their own. These tips may help, and more are available from the web resources in the sidebar.