We were recently approached by a lovely lady from an NGO asking if we had any material – statistics, articles, etc – on how to deal with online grooming (the process of an adult using the Internet to prepare child victims for sexual abuse). She was especially concerned about the explosion of online social networking services and how these services may facilitate abusers in reaching out and ensnaring more vulnerable children.
Now, truthfully, we don’t have a lot of material on this topic. Our work focuses more on the tech side of the huge field that is online security. Still, as more children become Internet-connected at a younger age – whether on a computer at home, at school, or even via a smartphone – keeping them safe online is becoming more of a concern, especially for parents who struggle with technology.
I won’t include a list of safety tips here, as there are already many great guidelines available from dedicated child protection organizations (some sites to check are Netsmartz.org, Childhelp.org and Cybersmart.org). Instead, I’d like to summarize all this useful, wide-ranging advice into five very general points about online security, as a kind of handy baseline for parents to start from.
Point 1: Don’t feel overwhelmed.
The many guidelines available give tons of helpful tips, suggestions, checklists and more, so it’s easy to feel flooded by too much advice. Most of these recommendations stress four major concerns:
Within each of these subjects, there are a multitude of suggestions about what can be done. If you address each concern in a way that suits your family’s needs, then that’s a good start.
Point 2: Don’t underestimate how easily a mistake can happen – but don’t exaggerate either.
It can be incredibly easy to accidentally reveal too much about yourself online, especially as many web services today are designed for convenience and not security. Even tech-savvy adults struggle with the same safety measures children are asked to follow.
For example, one guideline meant for children includes straightforward tips like not posting personally identifiable details on a blog. This is advice plenty of adults have failed to observe!
Unfortunately, children can and will make the same mistakes adults do.
Understandably, this can be a cause for concern. At the same time, with some precautions and alertness, the risk of making a dangerous mistake can be significantly reduced.
Point 3: Don’t underestimate the power of an online relationship.
My third point is often implied in the various guidelines, but rarely explicitly stated. Since online relationships are usually ‘virtual’ and intangible, it’s easy to assume that ‘that online friend’ is less influential than someone who is physically present.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always true.
In many ways, online relationships are the modern take on the pen pals or telephone-buddies of yesteryear. How we communicate has changed, but the potential for good or bad remains the same. Two parties may thousands of miles apart, but online relationships can be intense, meaningful and complex.
Point 4: Technology is irrelevant, it’s all about behavior.
You may have noticed by now I haven’t said anything on how to use online programs, which brings me to my (deliberately overstated) fourth point.
Each type of communication technology – letters, phone calls, SMSes, e-mails or video blogs, etc – has unique risks, as well as 1001 cautions for safe use. Still, the safest approach to using any and each technology is the same: be aware of the risks involved and mitigate them as much as possible. Or to malign a military analogy – tactics may differ, but the strategy stays the same.
(Aside: if you’re interested, there are programs and other technology available to channel a child’s online activities and monitor their interactions; check out reputable child protection organization sites for programs they’d recommend or search for programs that may be more suited to your needs).
And finally, Point 5: Don’t panic.
Yes, there are dangers online, but they can be avoided.
The online world is much like the offline world: there are creeps and saints, helping hands and cons. With some sensible preparation and precautions in place, there may be as much danger in surfing the Web as there is going out your front door.
One last (I promise!) analogy: Teaching a child to interact safely online is a lot like teaching them to drive. The two processes follow the same stages: teaching them how to safely handle the machinery involved (be it a video chat program or a stick-shift sedan), making sure they know the dangers (scams and predators, potholes and drunk drivers), and finally – letting them go, ready to face the big, bad world out there.
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