No parent in their right mind would drop off a child in the middle of Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip with little more than a safety talk and a directive to behave — but that is in essence what’s occurring when children are allowed to access the Internet, largely unsupervised and unprotected, on digital devices. Each Internet-capable device acts as an open door for millions of people, directly into your — and your child’s — life. An invaluable resource when used for education, entertainment, and discovery, parents must realize that the digital world is also a playground for skilled predators.
Where kids go, so too do those who wish to harm them…which means digital devices pose a clear and present danger for kids. In fact, 1 in 5 children who touch a digital device is sexually solicited online. Chilling. Especially when you consider that more than a third of children under age 12 began interacting with a smartphone before they entered Kindergarten, and 20 percent of this same cohort have a smartphone of their own.
While authorities and Internet watchdog groups across the world are doing all they can to crack down on online predation, parents and caregivers must be the first line of defense when it comes to cyber safety. I urge families and youth-serving organizations to use June — Internet Safety Month — to learn about ways to keep children safe online.
Safety starts with priming digital devices to ensure children are protected as much as possible on a very basic level. Prior to giving any Internet capable device to a child, conduct a thorough investigation into its capabilities and ensure you are the primary user/administrator so that nothing can be done without your approval (changing passwords or settings, downloading applications, etc.).
Also remember that just because your child’s friends are using an app or game, does not mean it is safe. Apps may require location settings to be shared while in use or promote inter-app messaging between players or users. Predators have been known to groom unsuspecting kids on popular games like Fortnite or apps such as Snapchat. While safety settings help mitigate the opportunity for predators to contact children, constant monitoring of a child’s device is one of the most effective protective measures.
Establishing an Internet code of conduct is also important for children of all ages to understand that their behavior online should mirror their behavior in the physical world. Questions to consider include:
- Does your child understand that things posted on the Internet or sent on a digital device are permanent – even if the content is deleted from your child’s device?
- Does your child know not to post any personal information about themselves (pictures, address, phone number, etc.) online?
- Does your child understand that communicating with someone online that they do not know is very dangerous because that person could be anyone, even an adult?
Online predators are smart — but with education, awareness, and advocacy, we can be smarter. When it comes to safety, conversations do not have to be scary or uncomfortable. Instead, bring kids to the table and empower them with rules and tools to navigate the digital world safely, securely, and with confidence. Above all else, ensure your child or teen knows how to recognize unsafe situations and that they know they can come to you to talk about ANYTHING without fear of getting in trouble.
If you find that your child has been contacted by a predator, contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tip Line and submit a report at cybertopline.org or at 1-800-THE-LOST.