My friend and colleague, Dr. Bob Bergamini, has given many talks and shared much information about safety in the cyber-world for kids and teens. So I asked Dr. Bob to share some thoughts about this important topic for this month’s column.
For many years, parents have been advised to keep family computers in a public place, purchase anti-virus software and ensure that children didn’t release personal information over the Internet. These practices form an excellent foundation for safety, but are not complete.
It’s important that you emphasize safe behavior at all times. Use current news stories as teachable moments to reinforce safe Internet practices. With so many different ways to access the Internet, you should be aware of the places and rules where your child logs on because you may not always be present.
A friend’s house. Check with the friend’s parents to know their Internet policies. Don’t assume that others share the same concerns for safety. If there’s an older sibling, be certain he or she will follow safe practices.
At school. Typically, schools block instant messaging, chat rooms and many websites, though you should confirm that is the case. You should be aware of both the Acceptable Use and Privacy policies for the school and how they protect your child.
Smartphones. It seems like teens are on their phones constantly. Much of the time is spent texting or surfing. Every smartphone should contain protection like anti-virus software. Texting and some other services can be limited by time of day and specific numbers can be blocked. If bullying via texting is occurring, recording software is available. Be sure to talk to your children about the dangers of ‘sexting.’
E-mail. Messages should never contain personal data unless the email is encrypted. Group email should be distributed using the BCC (blind carbon copy) field, not the “TO” or “CC” field. This insures that email addresses are not vulnerable if one member’s computer is hacked.
Social networking. Cyber-bullying is increasingly common. It takes many forms, and utilizes many different technologies. Parents should stay involved and know how to report bullying to appropriate contacts at school and/or in law enforcement.
Proxy Sites. Children often text each other with addresses that have not been blocked by firewalls. Proxy sites allow your child to bypass firewalls and filters that are in place. The web address is not associated with any particular risk, so access is allowed. Once on that website, a child can surf to any site, even ones that are blocked locally.
The sheer volume of potential issues is overwhelming. For that reason, you should focus significant effort to develop the ‘filter between a child’s ears.’ There’s no software that will provide 100-percent protection. There’s no school that can monitor 100 percent of its students’ activity. Parents need to take the time to reinforce safety-focused behavior in their children. Be sensitive to subtle changes in your child’s behavior and remain open – so your children will feel comfortable coming to you with issues, concerns or threats. None of this is easy or pleasant, but all of it is necessary to insure the safety of our children in cyberspace.
Dr. Joseph Kahn is president of Mercy Children’s Hospital Services (mercy.net).