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New primer on internet safety for parents

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Access to the internet is a given for most of today’s children. New information is available at the touch of a button. Kids can follow — and be followed by — friends and strangers alike on social media sites. And the rise of cyberbullying, and its sometimes tragic endings are certainly alarming.

As Amber Mac writes in her new book with Michael Bazzell, “Outsmarting Your Kids Online,” kids are “adapting more quickly than we ever imagined … we are living in a unique time when we aren’t properly equipped to handle the questions kids are asking; in fact, we are frequently turning to them to learn how all these shiny new things actually work.”

So how are parents to ensure their children’s safety when using new-fangled technology that comes so easily to young children and teens?

In this new book, the writers state that the crimes perpetrated by cyber predators and bullies reported in the news are not aberrations. Mac, who is a bestselling author and technology entrepreneur, and Bazzell, an internet security expert, use their combined experience to provide parents with helpful how-tos for working with their kids in navigating the most popular social media platforms, keeping their home computers safe from cyberattacks, learning how to identify cyberstalkers, and knowing when it is necessary to contact the police.

Safety first

In the first half of the book, the authors review the most commonly used online social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They also mention newer apps that have become popular with teens, such as Snapchat and Vine, where pictures and videos are created and e-mailed to friends. Their philosophy is simple: parents can start using these apps to familiarize themselves with how the product works, how to set safety measures, and to keep an eye on their children’s activity on the sites.

Mac points to the CNN series “#Being13,” which found that the “heaviest users in the group checked all their social media accounts more than 100 times per day. This group explained that they closely monitored social media to keep on top of their popularity status.” The authors encourage parents to have children and pre-teens use computers in the living room or gathering places in the house, so they can monitor what their children are doing online.

The internet is permanent

To avoid being patrolled by their parents, sometimes teenagers activate an account with their real name, but are secretly active on another account under a fictitious name. Assisting parents in finding where their child is actually posting online, Bazzell created a database search tool. After the parent collects as much information as possible about her child on a social media site, she can input the information into the database and then receive a list of links online that provide the location where she can find her child is actively posting.

Mac notes that some parents might find this and a few other topics discussed as a breach of privacy, and writes, “We believe that you cannot have privacy without security and vice versa.” It’s up to each family to decide what is the right approach for them.

The reason for parents checking up on their kids, says Mac, is because they must help kids realize that if they post something to the internet, it is permanent, and may come back to haunt them. The authors say that both college admission placement personnel and job placement recruiters do check names online for any suspicious activity. Parents must teach their children that everything posted online is public information. (Fortunately, search engines such as Google and Bing can be contacted and will remove any sexually explicit material about a child online.)

Tracking tools

Unfortunately, apps like Instagram use a navigation system, which, if not turned off in the child’s app, can let a viewer know where the post or photo was taken and at what time. It is necessary to disable the tracking system on kids’ smartphones and on these apps. If your child has any followers or friends who look suspicious or have sexually implicit or explicit user names, it is necessary to delete them as soon as possible. If parents don’t warn children about these protective measures, a sexual predator can easily track down the location of your child.

Children can also make their Instagram account private, which only allows your child to choose which friends to follow, and Twitter even has accounts for families so each member is aware of what is being shared online. The book has many such tips to help entire families protect themselves online.

Girls and the internet

Instagram is popular with kids 13 to 17 because it allows them to take pictures of themselves and share them with friends. Research has shown that while boys prefer computers for playing games, girls use their smartphones for sharing visual imagery. There is an downside, however, to all of this female photo sharing.

The book says, “The Girl Scout Research Institute has also studied the connection between girls and social media, indicating that 68 percent of girls have had a negative experience online (including bullying and harassment).”

The sharing of nude photos is a slippery slope. The authors point to news stories about sexual predators obtaining the photos and blackmailing young girls with the threat of posting the photo online or telling their parents. Likewise, these photos can fall into the e-mail inboxes of classmates who will harass the girl.

Whether it’s in reaction to a nude photo or not, online bullying has become a huge issue. Since some sites have anonymous posting, the comments from peers can be very cruel. If a child ever receives a physical threat in online statements such as, “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to beat you up tomorrow. I’m going to hurt you. I’m going to have someone else hurt you,” this is considered a crime. Parents and teens should report these incidents to local and state police.

Half of all children who are cyberbullied never report it. Parents, of course, will want to protect their children and tell them to block the bully online, but kids, especially older teens, are afraid of retaliation. One of the main reasons teenagers don’t report bullying is because they often feel embarrassed or humiliated.

The book provides resources for parents, so they can learn how to help children deal with online bullying.

“One of the best resources online for both parents and teachers when it comes to bullying is TheBullyProject.com,” the authors write. “This site includes a parent action toolkit to explain how to talk to your children, how to approach the school, and other next steps.”

Besides TheBullyProject.com, the authors constantly cite the website Common Sense Media (www.commonsensemedia.org), which provides information about educational and age-appropriate websites, as well tips to help parents establish limits and boundaries with children when they use computers.

When it comes to online protection and etiquette, the authors advise both parents and their children to avoid “over-sharing, overreacting, and bullying.” Parents can model positive online interactions by sharing interesting information with their kids. In doing so, children will respect their parents’ willingness to learn about how they communicate with the world.

Protecting your home

Within the home, parents need to protect their computer from hackers and intruders. If you own a Windows-based computer, install antivirus software. With any type of Mac, such antivirus software is unnecessary.

Work with family members to create complex passcodes to lock and unlock any type of gadget, and use multiple hard-to-guess passwords for online accounts. Store the list of passwords in a safe place.

The authors want to give parents the necessary knowledge and tools to start safe internet habits early in a child’s life.

“Too many parents give up when it comes to managing screen time, but it’s a battle worth fighting as early on in your child’s online life as possible,” they write. “A young child without boundaries is going to run into potential problems later in life on the internet.”

Allison Plitt is a frequent contributor to NYParenting.com and lives in Queens with her 10-year-old daughter.

Updated 4:38 pm, December 9, 2016
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