You may have heard stories about children and teenagers being exploited online by sexual predators. However, considering the tens of millions of kids who use the Net daily, the frequency with which these incidents occur is very small. Yet they do happen.
There are smartphone apps – with names like Secret Folder, Private Vault, and Secret Apps – that can hide applications, pictures, videos, messages, and more. Don't assume that what you can easily see on your child's smartphone, is all there is to see.
While downright exploitation is rare, access of adult content by teens is surprisingly common. Some surveys indicate that as many as 9 out of 10 boys, and 6 out of 10 girls, have accessed content of a sexual nature online before the age of 18. More disturbingly, the same survey indicated that a significant minority of teens had accessed content of a violent sexual nature.
While that sort of information may lead you to want to disconnect your internet connection and get rid of your smartphone, it’s important to remember all of the positive social connections and the intellectual curiosity spurred on by the internet. So before you make any rash decisions read on to learn how you can keep an eye on the content your children access, while still giving them a reasonable degree of privacy and autonomy online.
Pitfalls and Dangers
What are the most common risks kids face online? While sexual content and predators earn most of the headlines, in actuality there are several risks you need to be aware of.
- Sexual predators: Social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and smartphone apps like Whisper and Tinder, are used heavily by teens, as well as by predators who may try to befriend and meet up with an unsuspecting teen.
- Mature content: Some of it is legal for viewing by adults, and some it is illegal for viewing by anyone, but all of it is considered inappropriate for anyone under the age of 18. Many online communities, such as Tumblr and Reddit, contain a combination of harmless material as well as adult content. While explicit content is usually labeled as such, it is likely that a child using these types of sites will regularly have the opportunity to access adult content even if they aren’t intentionally seeking it out.
- Harassment and bullying: There have been many cases of cyberbullying that resulted in horrible outcomes.
- Reputation damaging information: Once an inappropriate picture or thoughtless Tweet is posted it can be impossible to delete, and have professional, educational, and personal repercussions for years to come.
- Identity theft: Your child can be a victim of identity theft whether they do anything wrong or not, but being educated about the possibility can reduce the risk of making a blunder with expensive consequences.
- Malicious content downloads: Malicious downloads are typically packaged to look like legitimate applications and content. However, downloading them can let a hacker steal information from your computer, cause irreparable damage, and at a minimum create a messy situation that has to be cleaned up.
- Legal risks: Teens have always had a penchant for sexual exploration with their peers. In the internet age, that exploration has gone digital with the rise of sexting. However, possessing and sending explicit content depicting an underage person is a crime, and one that kids have been arrested for in the past.
Just like in the real world, parents must exercise supervision. Being engaged in what your kids are doing online is the most important step to take to protect them against harmful content, and dangerous situations. Here are some practical steps to take to connect to your kid’s life online.
- Understand the technology: Know the difference between a browser and an app. Know what the apps on your kid’s smartphone are for, including apps like Poof that hide apps your kids may not want you to see. Learn what an in-app browser is, which apps have them, and understand that is is virtually non-monitorable and unfilterable.
- Use common sense: Don't just get an Internet account and turn them loose.
- Monitor their activity: Develop an open-access policy where they understand you may access their computer or device at any time. Ask them which sites they visit and why. Keep in mind that virtually all internet browsers have features that make it easy to hide activity, so don’t depend on checking the browser history.
- Set limits: It's up to you to determine when your kids can go online and how much time they spend.
- Use filtering software: Although not perfect, you can block selected websites. Consider products like Cyber Patrol, CYBERsitter, and Net Nanny. Keep in mind that not all software works on all devices and take a device-by-device approach to filtering if you plan to filter content.
- Ask your kids to agree to common-sense rules: Don’t divulge financial or personal information without prior approval. Come to you immediately if something they see or experience online makes them uncomfortable. Never meet anyone they communicate with online without your involvement in the process.
- Keep an open line of communication: It’s important that your kids feel that you are someone they can come to without facing harsh judgment. Don’t just explain the risks once and then walk away, stay engaged in their digital life without being overbearing, and have a continual dialogue about the sites they visit. You might even learn about sites and apps you yourself would like to use.
The internet offers countless opportunities for your kids to make strong social connections, to feed their curiosity about the world around them, to develop skills that will launch them into lucrative careers, and to learn about any topic under the sun (or beyond the sun!). However, all of this information and connectedness doesn’t come risk-free, but you can minimize the risk that your child will become one of the fear-inducing statistics we’ve cited and linked to in this article by taking the steps we’ve suggested.
At the end of the day, keeping your kids safe online really boils down to four simple concepts:
- Educate yourself and your child about the risks posed by the internet.
- Know when and how they’re accessing the web.
- Trust them to make good decisions.
- Check in with them periodically and maintain an ongoing conversation about how they are using the web.