(The Vancouver Sun, May 6, 2002)
Q: For a while now, Ive been hearing all sorts of information about how dangerous it is for children and teens to be involved in those Internet chatrooms. I dont have kids myself, but Im worried about my nieceevery time I go over there she is on the computer. What does my sister need to know to protect her daughter?
Dennis, Burnaby, BC
Saleema and Teresa: The safety of children and teens in Cyberspace has become a serious concern for parentsand rightfully so. We have spent so many years teaching children not to talk to strangers, but millions of children are basically inviting strangers into their home everyday by revealing personal information in chat rooms. The Internet has become a vehicle for sexual predators to seduce children and teens, and parents are left not knowing who their children are communicating with, or if their child is in danger. Although we could fill several pages on this topic, here is some need to know information you may want to pass on to your sister:
- Is your child at risk? In recent years, experts have tried to identify characteristics of children who may be vulnerable to sex offenders. They suggest that children with low self-esteem, children who are shy, lonely or overweight and children of divorced parents may be at increased risk.
- Look out for clues. If you are concerned that your child is currently involved in an inappropriate online relationship, signs to look for include: finding your child online after bedtime, your child turns off the computer as soon as you enter the room, your child receives phone calls from adults, you find long distance calls on your phone bill that you dont recognize, or your child becomes withdrawn.
- Get down with the lingo. Chat rooms are filled with secret codes to prevent others from knowing what is being talked about. Although we have not finished the Internet dictionary we are compiling for you, here are some examples (and you thought how they talk directly to you was impossible to decode!):
- POS: Parents Over Shoulder
- CTN: Cant Talk Now
- P911: My parents are coming, watch your language<
- TA/SA: Teacher Alert/Sibling Alert
- :OX: Shhh! Its a secret.
- Make sure your computer is safe. Although no software will ever be a replacement for being an active parent, there are programs that can monitor your childs online conversations, filter inappropriate sites, as well as prevent him/her from giving out personal information like their last name, address and school. You may want to look into McAfee NeoTrace Pro, PowerTools for AOL, Cyber Sentinel, ChildSafe and McAfee Privacy Service.
- Keep predators out of your home. Try these ideas:
- Make sure your child understands that someone can easily find out an address and map to your house if they have your phone number.
- Remind your child over and over again never to reveal details about themselves over the net such as their grade, school name, or even sport jersey number.
- Keep the computer in a high-traffic area.
- Ensure that your child has a gender-neutral screen name.
- Teach your child the dangers of meeting chat line acquaintances face to face. Give real-life examples of what has happened to other children.
- Talk about the sites your child visits, who they communicate with, and who is on their buddy list.
- Need more? Read Kids Online: Protecting your child in cyberspace by Rice Hughes or The Parents Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace, by Parry Aftab.