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Protecting your Kids Online

Nature has gifted us with a parental instinct to protect our children. The scope of potential threats to our children’s safety and welfare have evolved from generation to generation, and unfortunately have never been higher than they are today. There may not be wild animals roaming the streets – gangs notwithstanding – and diseases waiting on every doorknob, but today’s threats are perhaps even more insidious because of their stealth nature. The so-called concept of over-protective parenting is making more sense than ever and with surprisingly little objection from so-called experts in the field.

The list of things that can harm our children has always been long and oppressive, and many of those risks are still in play. Second hand smoke, the need to “child-proof” homes, the threat of catching a bug from other kids, gang violence, promiscuity, sexual harassment and sexual predators, they’re all out there, and they all demand our most arduous attention. For all our good intentions, and the evolution away from a Sinatra-esque system of values (cigarettes and cocktails), things remain dark on the temptation front. Children are drinking at an earlier age than ever before. Smoking among teenage girls is on the rise. Because of media influences and the false confidence of easily obtained condoms, sexual experimentation is more pervasive than ever. But these perhaps pale in comparison to the advent of a new threat, one stemming from the very technology that offers our children opportunities our own parents couldn’t have imagined.

There is a new bad guy in town, one more insidious than anything society has seen before: the on-line predator. Our children are virtually addicted to the internet, and unlike other vices their learning curve vastly exceeds the understanding of the parents who must supervise it. Like other societal issues, safety begins with a strong and clear dialogue between parents and children to create values and set clear boundaries. But before this conversation can succeed there must come a process of parental education that imparts an understanding of the playing field upon which this drama is unfolding. Parents need to know how to recognize signs of risk, and for this they need to navigate the realms of chat rooms and instant messaging where predators lurk, hidden behind false identities and seductively manipulative strategies. Police and other agencies are taking steps to address these risks, but there are things parents can do to detect potential abuse, and take action when necessary.

Children should not be allowed to participate in chat rooms. The risk is significant, as this is where adult predators are lurking, posing as peers but armed with a very adult comprehension of what children want to hear. Chat rooms that are monitored by acceptable special interests, such as a club or church, may be an appropriate venue for your child, but parents should have a working knowledge of the technology in order to assess the nature and quality of the monitoring. Children should never be allowed to leave the “public area” of a chat room, since chat monitors can’t view exchanges that unfold there. Parents should take care to ensure that all computers in the house reside in common areas that are easily accessible. Position screens to be visible to an observer, and if possible try to be in the room when your child is online, or at least make a habit of dropping in frequently and unexpectedly.

Young children should never have their own email account or address. Your children should know that it is forbidden to exchange personal information with strangers, online or otherwise, no matter how safe they may appear. If your child uses computers at a library or at the home of friends, ensure that protective measures are in place. Establish a dialogue with your children about their online activities, and if one of their online friends seems even a little suspicious, don’t hesitate to investigate. If you suspect genuine impropriety, contact the police.

The risk of online abuse is cloaked with what appears to be innocence and distance, but it is a minefield of risk. Just like the days when your toddler was splashing in the deep end of a pool, never avert your eyes when they are online, and never shy away from the tough conversations it might inspire.

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