By Ted Mink
Online child predators can interact with children through a variety of channels: computers, video games, handheld gaming devices and mobile phones. These tools make millions of people accessible at your child’s fingertips … and vice versa. Paradoxically, young people asserting their individuality online remain very vulnerable to predation. Their innocence, natural curiosity, desire for attention, ingrained trust in adults, and/or desire to rebel against their parents can lead them into the path of someone who could harm them.
What children can do
Activities that may seem fairly harmless to your child can lure the attention of predators. Here are some precautions your child can take — with your help — that may help him or her steer clear of online predators.
Profile and content. The profile information and content you generate is critical. The images, opinions and personal information you share can be used by others to manipulate you, blackmail you, or literally locate you. Use a neutral profile photo that doesn’t show your face; consider a photo of an object or landscape. Never take nude or semi-nude photos of yourself or allow someone else to do so. Remember, anything you say or post can live forever online if re-posted by someone else.
Screen names. Select gender-neutral and age-appropriate screen names for yourself. You can inadvertently give out a lot about yourself with a screen name like “britt98” (Brittany, born in 1998?). Screen names that suggest sex, violence or drugs, which might seem fun or funny, can draw attention from the wrong people.
Privacy settings. On Facebook and other social sites, lock down your privacy settings so that only your approved friends can see your photos, video and updates. Leaving privacy open is like inviting strangers to tag along with you everywhere you go.
Friends list. While it may be tempting to build the largest friend list possible, to appear more connected or popular, you should only accept friend requests from people you actually know and trust.
Say no to creepers. If you are contacted, in any format, by someone you don’t know, do not respond. Use your settings to block that person from contacting you. Never agree to meet someone in person whom you met online. If you’re contacted by an adult you know, talk to your parents about the communication.
What parents can do
Every child is different. Different ages, maturity levels and special circumstances will dictate what’s appropriate for each child. The most important thing parents can do is stay involved with kids’ online activities and help them understand the dangers. Sooner or later they’ll be on their own, and will need that foundation of online common-sense. Until then …
Keep a computer in a well-trafficked room in your home. Remember that smartphones are just small computers … limit private access to them as well.
Stay involved in your child’s online activities. Insist on access (including passwords) to social networking, e-mail, texting and gaming. Make sure to check them periodically.
Find out what online safeguards are in place at your child’s school, friends’ homes, and any other place where your child may be using computers or video games.
Consider down-market mobile phones that don’t offer photo, video or Internet capabilities.
Remember that predators aren’t always strangers. “Grooming” by trusted adults plays a huge role in child predation. Watch for changes in your child’s relationships with adults in his/her life. Adults who work with children and teens have professional boundaries; cultivating significant online or text-based relationships with individual children is not appropriate.
There are several resources for parents and children on this topic, including NetSmartz.org, FBI.gov and the district attorney’s CHEEZO program.
Information in this article was adapted from NetSmartz.org and FBI.gov.