By the time youngsters head off to preschool, they have learned to never talk to strangers.
Yet once they get cell phones and laptops, some of that fear of strangers evaporates into cyberspace. Kids of all ages chat and text frequently, often sharing personal information. Sometimes that’s with people they have never met.
Liberty High School’s Computer Science Instructor Angela Klein, who has conducted computer outreach programs for middle schoolers for 15 years, says young people are willing to share just about anything online. “They are just naïve and trust that social networking is safe,” she says. “This makes them vulnerable to predators, as well as hurtful actions by their peers.”
Bullying and sending inappropriate pictures is a growing concern, says Steve Nichols, school resource officer at Harrisonville Middle School, who presents sessions on cyber safety. Before social media, students bullied at school were safe at home. “Now, even at home, with computers and cell phones, the bullying can continue,” he says. Many times even friends will make comments online that they wouldn’t have said to the victim’s face.
And some teens seem not to realize that when they send inappropriate pictures of themselves, they are often forwarded to others. “Once that picture is out in cyberspace it’s impossible to make it go away,” Nichols warns. In addition to being embarrassing, it can sometimes be a crime.
Before parents give their children freedom on the Internet, Klein believes families should discuss guidelines and dangers. Children should know if their parents intend to monitor communications so there are no surprises and arguments later.
“Digital images and words cannot be taken back nor permanently deleted,” Klein says. “Instill this in your child so they think twice before posting or talking to someone with a friendly avatar.” They might think they’re sharing information only with their Facebook friends, but if their friends have low privacy settings, others are viewing it too.
While many forms of blocking and monitoring software exist, Nichols says, the best defense is a good offense. “Talk to teens, ask them about the latest technology trends. Have a positive conversation about who they chat with and what web sites they like to visit.”
News stories on cyber bullying and online predators can be good conversation starters. Discuss what happened, why it happened and how to avoid falling victim, Klein recommends. Children are far more intuitive about technology than many parents. They can get around blocking or monitoring tool, she says, and some will, just for the challenge. “We have to teach them responsibility and respect for why things are blocked.”
Klein, a mother of two, has created guidelines for her own teens:
• Don’t say anything digitally you wouldn’t say in person.
• Never share private information online, such as your address or age. Your friends already know you.
• Don’t post it unless you are OK with everyone seeing it — including your parents.
Michelle Geringer of Lee’s Summit says that when it comes to her 14- and 11-year-old daughters using social media, privacy isn’t an option. “My girls know that (their) dad and I will look at their stuff anytime we want.”
Although she checks their messages weekly and watches interactions with their friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Geringer admits, “I’m sure I don’t see everything.” But she hopes teaching about the risks will result in wiser choices. “If they feel like something is wrong, it probably is.”
“There are times when I’ll just say I want to see your phone right now for the element of surprise,” explains Kelly Honn, who consistently monitors her children’s social media accounts. In addition to maintaining curfews for texting and calling, the Lee’s Summit mom talks with her children about trust, responsibility and being cyber smart.
“I don’t think we can hide the way of our society from them,” Honn says. “We have to let them make mistakes and learn from them while we are around to help guide them through all of this.”