The Internet has become an integral part of our lives. From online games to social networking, the Internet can be a wonderful place to conduct business, access news, play games and generally stay connected with friends. However, with unlimited access to information comes the risk of clicking on untrusted links, visiting unscrupulous websites and communicating information and images that should have remained private. These and other online activities can lead to a loss of privacy and a very real threat to our personal and financial well-being. Other online risks exist as well, including viral infections from malware, and a torrent of scams that can lead to identity theft and fraud. Moreover, of particular concern to parents, is their child’s connection to on-line predators and their desensitization from viewing highly sexualized images and content.
As a cyber safety specialist at the Calgary Police Service for the many years and currently at YouthLink Calgary, parents have asked me how to keep their children safe from online dangers. Some have become concerned after viewing their child’s questionable online conversations. Others have become alarmed upon learning that their kids are using the Internet to search out information about relationship problems, dating advice, and human sexuality rather than asking them.
In particular, parents are frustrated and frightened to learn that their children are accessing controversial and somewhat scandalous websites like Omegle, ChatRoulette or Ask.fm. Generally, parents worry about the long-term effects of exposure to violence in games and sexualized images, and speculate whether sharing highly personal photos and personal information with others online is just a function of growing up on the Internet. They worry that seemingly innocuous activities will have long-term negative effects on their child’s reputation, privacy, and mental health.
In my opinion, one activity that is particularly worthy of parental concern is “sexting.” Sexting is defined as sending and receiving sexually explicit images, whether photographs or video, which are nude or semi-nude via an electronic device. Of course there is a risk when any image is circulated on the Internet; however, it can be extremely damaging to a child’s emotional well-being when an intimate image is shared and subsequently forwarded and re-circulated in cyberspace. A further danger occurs when that image is used to harass, embarrass, threaten, blackmail and otherwise exploit that child. This often creates ongoing problems at school and in the community; once any image is transmitted electronically it is extremely difficult to remove it. Earlier this year, for example, a 16-year-old Saanich, BC, girl who texted naked pictures was found guilty of child pornography and uttering threats.
To alleviate the risk of sexting, here are some preventative/proactive tips that I often impart to parents to help monitor for “sexting” while still respecting their child’s privacy.
- Before giving your child a mobile device, have a conversation about rules surrounding the appropriate use of the device.
- Agree on well-defined personal boundaries regarding taking and sharing personal photographs and videos. Consider signing a family contract with your child agreeing on paper that they never take nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves.
- Once the child has the device, be aware of, and monitor on an ongoing basis, the apps your kids are using. Kids often believe that their photos disappear using certain apps or that their activities are anonymous when they use certain apps and websites. Tell them that there are still opportunities to capture screen shots using these platforms and that risks are always present whenever an image is sent or received.
- Foster a level of mutual trust and encourage your kids to tell you if they encounter any kind of problem. Make sure they know that you will support them regardless of what they may have inadvertently come across online. Visit www.needhelpnow.cafor additional support on the topic of sexting.
- Help your kids set up accounts with strong passwords on approved websites.
- Set up an alert to help monitor their online identity at a reputable alert site like www.google.com or www.twilert.com
Education plays an important in staying safe online! On September 17 at 1:00 p.m. EDT, GetCyberSafe is airing its first-ever English conversation titled #CyberTalk. The French portion will take place on September 24 at 1:00 p.m EDT. #CyberTalk is a real-time, online Q&A where Canadian parents can ask questions to leading experts on cyber security, online safety, and parenting. The discussion will give parents answers about cyberbullying, how to keep their children safe online and on social media, and what types of online controls should be in place to protect their children from Internet dangers.
Additionally, October 2014 marks the 14th annual Cyber Security Awareness Month, a joint effort by government and business leaders from across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. This event puts into effect better practices and safeguards to combat cyber crime with the goal of raising awareness about cyber safety.
Internet safety is an important topic in family life these days. Parents can protect their children by being proactive, responsible role models. Parents can obtain assistance with this balancing act from helpful websites from Canada like www.cybertip.ca and looking to great events like #CyberTalk. With appropriate support, managing our digital footprints is more straightforward and less problematic than ever before. Stay safe and have fun online!