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RBC | “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …”
Dickens’ infamous opener has been an accurate description of our world since it was printed in 1859. Wars, recessions and natural disasters continue alongside astounding leaps in science, technology, and human imagination. The explosion of the internet, particularly, has fundamentally changed the way society works, and it looks like there’s no going back.
For parents, this technological saturation of our world has created new concerns about keeping their children safe. From good old “stranger danger” to recent reports of viral “challenges” encouraging self harm, parents should know the risks and teach their kids basic internet safety rules.
The HT interviewed Lee Damuth, Chief Investigator with the 9th Judicial District and member of the Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, a partnership between local, state and federal government agencies on some of the best ways parents can be proactive when it comes to keeping kids safe online.
Q: Is there a “Golden Rule” when it comes to internet safety for kids?
A: I believe the most important rule in regards to internet safety for kids is communication. Parents need to be aware of what it is that their children are doing online, what apps, games, social media platforms, etc. they are using, and who they may be communicating with. This is an ongoing type of conversation as things can change quickly in the digital world and something that is popular with kids today may not be so in just a few weeks. Ideally this communication allows for kids to feel comfortable coming to their parents (or other trusted adult) if/when they do come across something online that makes them uncomfortable. While there are options for monitoring apps and software, the reality is that technology will not catch everything so you can’t simply rely on these options.
Q: How can parents educate themselves on the dangers of the internet (without just wanting to toss their whole computer out the window?)
A: There are a few good resources for parents and child internet safety. I actually do presentations on this very topic and can present at schools during parent’s nights, to church groups, or to any other parent’s group that would want to schedule something. Further, the ICAC taskforce partners with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children which runs the website Netsmartz.org. There you can find information for parents, teachers, and other community members. Another great resource is Common Sense Media at commonsensemedia.org. This organization has tips for parents and also does reviews of apps, games, TV shows, and movies in regards to how appropriate the media is for children. This is a good place to turn if your child tells you about a new app or game they are into.
Q: We recently witnessed a moral panic surrounding “Momo,” though there appears to be no legitimate evidence that this character was actually inserted into children’s videos on YouTube Kids. What are your thoughts on this situation?
A: I found the interest/panic about the Momo challenge to be quite interesting as it wasn’t just parents who were believing this but also several news agencies who reported on it without having much proof that it was occurring. Ironically there was another situation occurring at the same time in which a male party had inserted a short clip of himself giving children suggestions on how to commit suicide into YouTube Kids videos, which was confirmed by several YouTube users, but this didn’t seem to turn into such a big deal. I think part of the issue is that our children are facing challenges that we did not have to deal with when we were kids. Not having grown up with the internet as it is today puts parents at a bit of a disadvantage, and I think this is what leads to rumors turning into what appear to be legitimate stories. As with anything you read online, I think parents need to have a healthy skepticism about anything they may hear or read about— particularly if it is something that is being reposted on social media accounts. Also, going back to the communication piece, parents should use these opportunities to check in with their children to see if they are hearing or seeing whatever is being reported on and to also use it as a chance to remind their children that they can talk to their parents, or other trusted adults, if they do come across something that makes them uncomfortable.
Q: Common advice tells parents they should keep their eyes on their kid’s screens at all times. Is that practical and is it necessary?
A: I don’t think it’s practical to always monitor what kids are doing online, particularly with older teens who likely have several devices of their own in addition to access when at school, at friends’ houses, etc. Younger children should have their use monitored until parents are comfortable with their child’s ability to responsibly use the device. There are several tech options available that can assist with monitoring usage to include built-in features on both Android and iOS devices as well as third-party applications and software that offer varying degrees of monitoring abilities. Some of these are free while most charge either a one-time fee or a subscription fee based on what the app/software does.
Q: What should parents tell kids when they talk to them about internet safety?
A: Parents should talk to kids at all ages about internet safety, while keeping the conversation age appropriate. Kids should know that there are many ways they can get themselves into trouble or make themselves vulnerable to becoming a victim of something when online. One of the biggest things that kids need to understand, even younger ones, is that it is extremely easy to pretend to be someone you are not when you’re online. Adults looking to victimize children will pose as other kids in games or on social media in order to start to develop a relationship with the child. Kids should know this, especially if they play games or have any sort of social media presence. Both Netsmartz and Common Sense Media have great resources for parents on how to begin these conversations as well as age appropriate topics.
Q: How do you set limits that can grow with your kids?
A: I think that setting limits is going to be something that is unique to each child, maybe even for different children within the same family, and it is going to be largely dependent on how responsible a child is with their technology. As I stated earlier, younger children should not have unsupervised time online. As kids get older, and as they get access to more devices that are internet connected, then parents should base their limits on how their children are showing that they can be responsible with the technology they have. Again, both Netsmartz and Common Sense Media have more advice in this area.
Q: Are parental controls really enough to keep kids safe?
A: Parental controls will never catch everything, so again I have to stress that communication is more important than trying to rely on a technological solution.
Q: Do you recommend any specific apps for safe and supervised internet usage?
A: There are several options out there for supervising internet use. As mentioned before, Apple devices now have Screen Time and Android has Google Family Link. These will allow you to control what apps children can download and will show you how much time they spend on their devices. Both Windows and Mac computers also have some built-in protections that you can use to create a specific child user account where you can again control access to what they do and monitor how much time they are online. Further, there are several apps available for Androids, iPhones, and computers. Some of the more popular ones are Qustodio, Eset Parental Controls, Web Watcher, Norton Family Premier, and FamilyTime. Some of these have free options, that offer limited controls, and others are paid services.
Q: How do you protect your child’s privacy and data, especially when they begin to use social media?
A: Children need to protect their information just as adults should as they can be victims of identity theft which will often go unnoticed until they are an adult and trying to get credit accounts in their own name. Kids should never share their address and phone numbers freely on their social media accounts. They should only send friend requests or accept friend requests from people they actually know. They should also be mindful of how they may be sharing their location data on social media. Phones and tablets all have GPS in them now and if it is allowed then several apps, including social media apps, will use that location information. This can even occur when taking a picture or making a video as the device’s camera also has access to the GPS data and it will get included in the picture or video data that then gets sent to others or uploaded online. Children also need to be aware that anything they share online can come up again later in their future, such as when applying for jobs or colleges, so they should be mindful of the information they decide to post knowing that it could affect their future.
Q: What sorts of behavior might be a warning sign that your child is having issues online (cyberbullying, inappropriate content, messages from strangers, etc.?)
A: There are a few signs that a child may be experiencing issues online. A child may suddenly not be interested in using their device or they may stop playing a game that they have previously been interested in. There could be signs of withdrawal from family and friends. They could be using their device at unusual hours or using it much more than they normally do. They could be reluctant to talk about what they are doing online or may try to hide their activities by hiding their device when parents are around or deleting history. Children could receive unexpected gifts in the mail or may be caught making travel plans if they are talking to someone online who wants to meet with them. Also, seeing unknown numbers in phone call or text message history could be another indicator. Again, stressing the importance of open communication, when parents see these behaviors or signs then this is a great opportunity to talk to your child about what they are up to online. There could be a perfectly legitimate reason for any one or a combination of these warning signs, but the only way to know for sure is to ask.
For more information or to schedule a group presentation with Damuth about internet safety, email email@example.com or call 970.384.3507.
ATT’s Internet Safety Plan is a great resource, as well: https://www.attplans.com/resources/internet-safety-guide/
By Caitlin Walker | firstname.lastname@example.org