Protecting oneself and others

Introduction: Texting, chatting and sharing media (photos in Flickr, webcam or video in YouTube) is how our kids communicate online. It is such a huge part of their everyday lives. The online issues associated with this include; keeping personal details private, not sharing too much information, regretting posting something can never be retrieved, protecting identity and reputation.

It is our responsibility to protect our children. It begins with talking to them about the challenges of being connected and the consequences if we make the wrong decisions online.

Protecting self from predators
Kids like to chat online, to make new friends, but they can't always be certain that any 'new friend' is reliable, responsible and has good intentions. If too much information is shared, it can fall into the wrong hands. If too much freedom is given online, some children can find themselves in places they don't want to be, talking to people they don't know or shouldn't know.

Instant messaging sites, chat rooms, video chat facilities can all be potentially dangerous environments to be in. For example, Chatroulette is a website that randomly pairs strangers (1.5 million visitors a day) from around the world together for webcam-based conversations. You can imagine some of the inappropriate random connections made here. To date, reports of voyeuristic encounters include naked body parts and sex scenes.

It is also important to ensure your children are safe from potential predators and groomers. Grooming is when someone manipulates and prepares a young person for a relationship online - which may progress to meeting in person, usually for the goal of sex. This is often subtle, sneaky and quite devasting to a victim, even if they never meet the online predator in person. Apparently about 20% young people online "receive unwanted sexual solicitations"

But how do you know if your child is being groomed online? NetSafe has published a very useful list of "clues or indicators" that might provide an indication that there may be a connection with someone online or off. This is a must read for all parents. NetSafe's Parents & Caregivers - Grooming

Suggestion: Talk to your children about possible signs to look for. For example, tactics a groomer might use to lure a young person into online conversations or even more. "Sometimes it involves flattery, sometimes sympathy, other times offers of gifts, money, or modeling jobs. It can also involve all of the above over extended periods of time. That's why it's called "grooming." Experts say the short-tem goal of these manipulators is for the victim to feel loved enough to want to meet them in person, and these people know that sometimes takes time." For more tips on how to be aware of grooming tactics, go to

Protecting reputation
Part of being a savvy cyber citizen is leaving an appropriate digital footprint online. This includes keeping your reputation in tact over time. This is even more important for the 'look at me' or the '15 minutes of fame' generation, who love to put themselves out there and at the same time, may not think through the consequences of posting or sending inappropriate material. The internet invites them to broadcast themselves, it's called "lifecasting". But through the power of uploading, copy/paste - once it's out there, you can never get it back! Kids beware - the web never forgets.

Wild antics captured on film, dodgy photographs, flaming messages, sexting can all be sent in an instant. The consequences are for a life-time. You never know where your personal digital data will end up. Even if your child is responsible and not uploading or sending inappropriate material of themselves or others, someone else may have easily posted or tagged material of your child without consent.

Suggestion: Sit down together with your child and Google your names together, see what you can find. Discuss the implications if there is any inappropriate material published. Agree to some Netiquette rules of engagement online.

Protecting identity
What's in a name? You gave your child their name, it is precious and needs to be protected - especially when it comes to being online. Recently, Google's chief has put forth a novel solution for today's teenagers whose wild online antics threaten to follow them into their adult life: change your name.

Young people need to be well aware when they are choosing using their own identity online, a persona or acting anonymously is to protect reputation, safety from predators, as well as ensuring vital information doesn't reach the wrong hands. Most recently, the New Zealand Herald shared a story of how a 'Facebook friend' stole a young girl's identity by stealing her photos and distributing them as well as false information in fake social networking pages. Young people need to understand that pretending to be someone else is unethical, deceitful, potentially harmful and illegal.

They also need to be aware that being anonymous online may have other consequences where cyber bullying, flaming and defaming can be harmful. Julie A. Cunningham blogs, "that they need help moderating their web presence until they understand the full ramifications of things they say online. I don’t think that means they need to be anonymous. I do think that anonymity tends to foster less responsible behavior, in both children and adults alike."

In short, we all need to be mindful of respecting our own and other people's identity online. Russell Burt, Principal of Point England Schools thinks there is a real need for this to be openly and intentionally discussed/debated, 'Would you say it in front of Granny?' 'Is it kind, is it helpful?

Finally, watch out for scams (email and online scams), spyware, malware asking for personal details, designed to steal information such as bank account details and pins etc. "Phishing is the criminal process of attempting to get information such as usernames, and credit card details by pretending to be a trustworthy site." For more on this, go to NetSafe's information on Phishing On Social Networking Sites.

Suggestion: Teach your child about the importance of identity and reputation and that it's ok to choose to have a different persona online according to the appropriate context. This is different to pretending to be someone you are not. Also discuss when them when is it ok to be anonymous and when is it not, when should they own name or not? Protect your own identity and ensure your friends do the same. For a more in-depth view on privacy and anonymity, go to Netsafe's link at Privacy and Anonymity on the Net.

Staying healthy
Keeping oneself healthy and safe. This also includes how to manage time online - so that life is both balanced and healthy.

Recommendation: Actions speak louder than words. Be a positive role model for your children. Ensure they have a well balanced life and get the sleep, physical and social activity their growing bodies need. Keep an eye for any adverse signs of Internet addition or possible depression and address this as soon as possible.

Additional resources to consider

NetSafe resources for parents

Netsafe resources for Young people - Communicating

Jilliane Hoffman - Protecting your child from cyber monsters
Interesting article in the Huffington Post about some US stats on sex offenders and their use of the Internet.