Let's start by dispelling one popular myth. Your kids don't have all the answers when it comes to the use of technology. They may know more about how to operate a computer or a cell phone or put a page up on a social networking site, but just because some adults are a bit technologically challenged doesn't mean that they have no place supervising kids' use of technology. Adults have one thing that teens don't have - life experience -- which for most translates into wisdom. Adults know, for example, that things aren't always what they appear to be. They know that while most people in this world are decent and caring, there are a few who will take advantage of others and you can find these people on the Internet just as you would in "the real world" (though, for teens there is no distinction between the Internet and "the real world." The Internet is a big part of their world).
But there are other myths that we must also dispel. One is that Internet predators typically deceive their victims by lying about their age or their gender. While that is possible, it's usually not the case. Research has shown that most adults who attempt to engage in a physical relationship with a minor do not grossly exaggerate their age. In most cases, the young person is aware that that person is an adult prior to the meeting
To be sure, there are predators who would harm children. That's one reason that it's important for kids to be cautious when communicating with people they don't know in person, especially if the conversation starts to be about sex or physical details. Fortunately most teens are pretty careful, which is why the number of cases of teens who are physically harmed by these criminals is fairly small. Still, one case is too many and if you hear about a case of someone using the Internet to groom or lure a minor into a sexual situation or if you find sexual images of children (child pornography), call local authorities and report it at CyberTipLine.com
If you don't get together with someone you meet online, they can't physically harm you, so your safest bet is to avoid meeting such people in the real world. If a teen does get together with someone it should be in a very public place and they should bring along a parent, a group of friends or maybe the football team and cheerleading squad. You never want to meet someone in person in a way that could make you vulnerable.
Another thing we know about threats to teens and children is that they don't always come from adults and they're often from someone they know. Kids can and sometimes do harm other kids. Threats often come from peers kids know from school or other real world situations. Whether it's unwanted sexual advances, harassment or what's now called "cyber bullying," peer to peer threats are real and can be harmful. If a teen or child is being bothered or harassed by anyone the best advice is to not respond to that person and someone. That should include a parent, guardian or teacher but, for teens, it can also include trusted friends. Sometimes kids can handle the situation on their own or in groups but at other times it requires adult intervention and, in serious cases, maybe even the police. Not all harm is physical. Cyber bullying can be emotionally devastating.
For adults - whether parents, teachers, administrators or authorities, it's important to listen and provide support to a child or teen who is scared, worried or bothered by such contact but not to over-react or "punish the victim" by taking away Internet privileges or forcing them to avoid using social networking sites or other services. The fear of an adult overreacting is one of the reasons many teens give for not coming forward if they have a problem. And parents need to know that taking away a teen's online privileges could backfire by prompting him or her to go into stealth mode by finding hidden ways to get online. If you take away a child's online profile for a service, he or she can easily create another one or - worse-find a service that doesn't even try to enforce basic safety rules. And if you ban teens from using a computer or attempt to filter what they can access, the young person can find another way to get online including friends' computers or a cell phone. Modern phones have Web browsers and some even have special software for getting onto social networks.
Which all leads to the fact that - regardless of what technology parents try to employ, the best filter is the one that runs in the young person's brain - not on a computer.
Cell phones can also be used to bully and harass a young person. Text messages can sometimes be hurtful. And some phones have global positioning systems and software that allow teens to broadcast their location. Kids need to know how to use the privacy features these services offer to be sure they aren't easily locatable by people they don't trust.
Finally, Internet safety is a two-way street. Kids should be good online citizens and not harm, threaten or bully others for two reasons. First because it's wrong and second because it can get them in trouble with authorities, parents and even other kids.
By Larry Magid