The most popular advice I’ve heard about ensuring children’s safety while online is to “be right there with them while they are online.”
Right on its heels is the adage that “you should move the computer to the living-room and make sure your kids don’t surf the Internet in their bedrooms or in another room away from you.”
“If this is not a possibility, then make sure you are often in and out of the room to keep an eye on what is going on. Be sure you know what your kids are doing online at all times,” one web site said.
This sounds like solid advice, if impractical for me and other parents I know. It doesn’t help the parent whose child is likely surfing the Internet on a laptop or joins mobile phone- based social networking platforms.
It also doesn’t take into consideration the fact that you may have bought your child a laptop or phone for a number of valid reasons, and the child would have the right to use it without asking for permission first. Or that you’re a single parent, work crazy hours and don’t have the luxury to watch your children every time they use the Internet.
Another disturbing fact that I learnt while researching online safety was that “most children who agree to meet face to face with an adult do so willingly, they are not tricked or coerced [What you don’t know can hurt your child, the North Carolina attorney general’s Internet safety report].
This made me realise that the key to protecting your children and ensuring their safety while online is to make sure they don’t want to engage in risky behaviour.
Once again, that sounds nice, but every parent knows that is easier said than done. It requires good old fashioned communication, that very difficult aspect of parenting that requires sustained time and effort. You only know for certain it’s not working when there’s trouble.
Safeguarding your child requires that your child maintain healthy relationships with family and friends, so she doesn’t have to look far for approval. And it requires parents and child carers to know what their kids are up to, on a regular basis, so when there is a problem, it gets fixed long before the child has the chance to look to a potential predator for help.
I’m sure you know how difficult that is when you have to deal with life’s regular stresses including maintaining a demanding job (or two). Comforting yourself with the fact that you are monitoring your child’s Internet activity starts to look good, because it gives you the assurance that you’re doing something concrete.
But here’s what I learnt: online predators use a number of psychological tools to lure your child. He makes your child look at her world and exaggerates the discontent. He draws a wedge between the child and her family and friends. “They don’t understand you,” he tells her. “But I do.”
So your child grows increasingly distant from her support system and more drawn towards the predator’s approval. No amount of policing Internet use can cure that.
But, as Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired has shown with her research, the majority of kids who go online are not in danger of being lured/abducted by sex abusers and rapists. Most kids are media and safety-savvy, and statistically speaking, they are more in danger of being kidnapped by someone they know than they are by a stranger. But even if it’s just one child who is in danger, it is one child too many.
So as parents, we each have to make sure that our children join the web/safety savvy group that is not vulnerable to predators’ lures. These are the kids who take precautions and know not to give out personal details or publish too many photos providing strangers with insight as who they are and where they live.
They terminate conversations when propositioned by strangers, and they know the difference between an online buddy and a friend.
And if they find themselves in potentially dangerous situations, they tell their parents/another adult/talk it over with friends and remove themselves from contact with the suspect individual. But more than anything else, these kids don’t need their Internet activities to be policed, because they see predators for who they are and are not likely to fall for the lures.
So, what are you doing to proof your child against online predators?
Damaria Senne is a journalist and author based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She writes about the telecommunications industry in South Africa and Africa, including cellular, mobile and wireless technologies and messaging news and trends.
Damaria is also an author and would like to write books that inform, educate, empower and entertain for parents and children.