Once upon a time, in a place not that far removed from the present, children played outside until suppertime or rode bikes miles through town. Our immediate community was really all that was available to us. Our parents knew we were safe.
That was then, and this is now. We live at a time when children are leaving home while sitting in their bedrooms. Worldwide virtual communication is, in fact, the reality. More than ever before, parents are confronted and confounded with how to protect their children from the myriad of problems that can arise from exposure via the Internet. It isn’t enough to simply tell kids what types of activities and websites they may visit; parents need to educate themselves and build in safeguards.
The Internet is not innocuous. The FBI and the Attorney General’s office both have information on their websites giving a clear look into the types of crimes that insidiously befall kids and how to protect against such problems. But time and again on these websites and others, parents were warned to be involved. The enormity of Internet safety concerns is evident with both the Attorney General’s office and the FBI providing specific guidance to parents.
The Attorney General’s website proclaims, “Anyone — those with good intentions as well as those with intent to do harm — can dip into your virtual bucket and search for your information years from now.” The website goes on to state, “It could be an identity thief or any other kind of predator, or anyone in your life who wants to lash out at you, can cause harm.”
And yet the Internet is a tool that is so deeply enmeshed in our lives that we can’t operate efficiently without it. So, what can a parent do?
Some of the suggested safeguards from these websites include: keeping computers in common areas versus behind closed doors, knowing passwords, setting blockers to keep out objectionable materials, monitoring phone bills and credit card statements for unknown numbers or charges and becoming computer literate.
One local father said he uses Net Nanny, a software tool that allows parents to track all electronic communications.
“The amount of information received can be overwhelming,” he said, “but you have to worry about all of it.”
Another father said, “I have my daughter’s passwords. She knows at any time I can check what she has posted or received.” Although that might sound like a threat to a teenager, additional dialogue assured this girl that her father simply wanted to protect her.
A young mother thought her child wasn’t old enough yet for Internet safety to be a real concern. “But I know I’ll have to put something in place soon,” she said.
Sooner rather than later is the key. Because kids are astoundingly more computer literate than their parents, it becomes even more imperative for parents to bridge the gap any way they can.
Last December, Old Rochester Regional High School hosted a meeting to help parents navigate the dos and don’ts of Internet use. Principal Michael Devoll told me, “We geared the information for non-tech savvy parents.”
Parents were told how critical it is for transparency. “If their teenager has a Facebook page, we told them to be ‘friended,’ or a Twitter account so they could get the messages, too,” Devoll said. He noted that the school has a policy for using the Internet while in the building, and that same policy would work well at home. The Internet policy for the school is available at www.orr.mec.edu.
Both Rochester Police Chief Paul Magee and Marion’s Lt. John Garcia said that although they don’t have formal Internet safety programs, they do suggest visiting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at www.missingkids.com. From here, parents can go to “Resources” and then “For Families.” There‘s also a link to NetSmartz programs full of great information to jumpstart in-home security measures.
“There are different concerns for different ages,” said Mattapoisett Young Adult Librarian Elizabeth Sherry. Concerns can span from simply blocking adult content to protecting personal and financial identities. Sherry said that for young people heading to college, understanding how to protect their bank accounts and credit cards was necessary, whereas “younger children may have to deal with cyber bullying.” And she expressed concern that, “Teens don’t understand what you post on Facebook belongs to Facebook, not to you; it can be used for many things.” Sherry concurred that colleges and future employees may see material posted. Teens need to think before they post anything on a social media platform.
Ultimately, Internet safety requires a new type of cooperative effort between parents and their children. Clearly, our young people are faced with situations we could never have imagined except as a piece of science fiction. But our virtual lives are now trending openly on the Internet. It is adults’ responsibility to educate themselves and the children while standing guard over the rabbit hole known as the World Wide Web.
By Marilou Newell