What families – we all – need to be working on for online youth's well-being going forward
by Anne Collier
Filtering, monitoring, and other parental-control technology can be useful items in the family Internet first-aid kit, depending on kids' ages and maturity levels. But the most effective, always-age-appropriate tools these days are information and communication – as kids' knowledge of workarounds and malicious hackers' use of social engineering grow. Ideally, parents and kids are working together to develop children's mental filters in three areas – online safety, cybercitizenship, and computer security – folding both kids' tech literacy and parents' life literacy into the discussion.
Online safety and citizenship overlap, because now, as Internet access becomes ever more available beyond the home, young people's best protections online and off are critical thinking and intelligent behavior. We all hear so much about "predators" in the news media, but a lot of the "predation" or sexual solicitation targeting teens comes from peers or young adults and a lot of it has always been called "flirting." Aggressive behavior toward others online (mean gossip, dissing, acting out, seeking out risk for its own sake, talking with people they don't know about sex) puts the aggressor at greater risk, research is now showing – at risk of being cyberbullied as well as sexually exploited (see "New approach to online-safety ed suggested"). We need to think of our children less as potential victims and more as participants in this space, calibrating our parenting and online-safety messaging to the social Web.
Please don't misunderstand: Pedophiles seek out kids online, but they can't hurt your child if he or she doesn't respond. It's the kids "looking for trouble" – those most at risk offline – who are most at risk online (see "Profile of a teen online victim").
So ongoing communication about the importance of thinking critically about what kids say and how they act and react online is the most vital element in the first-aid kit (household or classroom). Another need: media literacy and being smart about what they click on and download – checking out widgets before they add them, analyzing the source and value of info encountered online, asking a friend if s/he really sent a link or attachment before clicking, researching a product before buying it online, checking out someone's profile before adding him as a friend, deleting weird comments and blocking the creeps from commenting again. Parental critical thinking needs to be in the kit, too, as parents ask questions appropriate for their own children's maturity levels – whether Mom should require that she knows everyone on a child's friends list or Dad should be on that IM buddy list, whether or how much to monitor a profile, whether parents help set preferences in an application or privacy features for a social-networking profiles, etc.
Here are some basic articles to include in the kit for developing mental filters: "How social influencing works," "How to recognize grooming," "If Gandhi had a MySpace profile," and this week's "Social networkers = spin doctors." As for computer security, that's essential too, and here are 7 clearly written steps to that end from Washington Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro. And if you feel a child is immediately at risk of victimization, contact your local police and CyberTipline.com (or 800.843.5678) at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.