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Can Parents Help Kids Stay Safe Online?

Good communication, monitoring tools key, experts say

Pornography – sexual predators – sexting – enticement to substance abuse or violence – cyberbullying.

Children and teens today face a barrage of online pitfalls most adults never dreamed of when they were younger.

How can parents protect their children on the internet while still showing trust and allowing a reasonable degree of freedom?

As the primary teachers and protectors of their children, they face a daunting task.

Good communication coupled with effective technology safeguards are key, said Amie Konwinski, founder and CEO of Smart Gen Society, an Omaha-based organization teaching kids and parents about online dangers and protection methods.

Many popular apps used by kids, such as Instagram, SnapChat and TikTok, allow them to exchange messages, photos or videos with family and friends, but also pose risks of receiving inappropriate content and being contacted by predators, she said.

TikTok has become very popular with 9-13-year-olds for posting videos, Konwinski said. “The purpose is to have a lot of likes from your videos, so not a lot of students have their privacy settings turned on.”

They also may encounter foul language, violence or talk of violence, she said.

Without activated privacy settings, strangers can contact them, asking for personal information such as their name, school and where they live, opening the door to online enticement, which is at an all-time high, Konwinski said.

In 2017 there were a little over 10 million reported cases of online child enticement (in the U.S.), she said. “Last year it went up to 19 million.”

For example, on Instagram a predator need only have a child’s username to be able to send them messages, she explained.

Konwinski said her daughter is a perfect example. “She has, in the past two weeks, received four messages from complete and total strangers, offering to give her money for being their online friend, and sending her gifts. … It becomes a way that those predators are directly contacting our students.

“Talk to your kids about strangers sending them messages, not to click on a link because 90% of the time it’s a pornography link or it’s a picture that’s not appropriate,” she said. “Or, they’re trying to get them to get comfortable enough to where they can send a picture or meet them in real life.”

PARENTAL VIGILANCE

Once limited primarily to magazines and cable television, pornography has made the leap to the internet.

In their 2015 statement “Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warns parents: “Be vigilant about the technology you allow into your home and be sensitive to the prevalence of sexual content in even mainstream television and film and the ease by which it comes through the internet and mobile devices.

“Educate yourselves about filtering software that can assist in protecting your home. Foster openness and trust with your children.”

A companion resource, “Raising Chaste Children in a Pornographic World,” by Ryan Foley (2016), notes that: “Technology, and particularly the internet, is now the primary gateway to accessing pornography.”

Quoting statistics published by Family Safe Media in 2010, he says: “The average age of first exposure to pornography is eleven.

“Over a quarter of children see pornography before beginning puberty” and “by the age of eighteen, over 90 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls will have accessed pornography online at least once,” he adds.

SEXTING

A form of self-produced pornography is sexting, or the sending and receiving of sexually-oriented material, including nude photos, said Tara Sjuts, licensed psychologist at Omaha’s Munroe-Meyer Institute and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“Once an image is out there, (the senders) lose their choice in the matter and are no longer able to decide to back off,” she said. “It can be held against them in the future. It’s like a runaway train – there are no take-backs.”

Again, communication is key to helping kids avoid this trap, Sjuts said. “We often tell kids not to do something, but don’t teach them how to say no to pressure.”

She suggests parents have a conversation with children about what kind of person they want to be, their values and how to be assertive and speak up for what they believe.

“But parents know kids will make mistakes and may fear the reaction of their parents,” Sjuts said. “So, make it safe enough for them to say, ‘I made a mistake,’ by being loving and supportive.”

A SOLID PLAN

So how can parents set expectations and safeguard their kids from unwanted electronic communication?

“Have a solid family plan about how you’re going to treat those devices,” Konwinski said.

Parents can download a digital family plan at smartgensociety.org/images/uploads/content/Smart_Digital_Family_Plan.pdf.

“It allows them to be very intentional about what they’re going to allow their kids to do,” Konwinski said, “and kids can know exactly what’s expected and not expected from their digital technology. It’s really a piece of empowerment that parents can use.”

The plan contains a checklist so parents can establish expectations and gain their children’s commitment to only post and share things they would want their family to see, she said.

Konwinski recommends activating built-in programs such as Apple Screen Time for Apple devices and Digital Wellbeing for Android devices, both of which allow setting controls for what kids can access and the amount of usage time they are permitted.

She also recommends getting rid of old devices around the house.

“This is becoming a big issue, because, let’s say you have a phone, you get it upgraded and just keep the old phone in a drawer,” Konwinski said. “We’re finding that students are using those old devices to sneak around their parents and their parameters.”

MONITORING SOFTWARE

One parental control service Konwinski recommends is Bark. For $9 per month, this service offers 24-7 monitoring of text messages, YouTube, emails and over 25 popular social networks to detect indications of online predators, adult content, sexting, cyberbullying, and talk of substance abuse, violence, depression or suicidal thoughts. Upon detection, it sends alerts to parents.

Bark also allows parents to set limits for screen time and block applications and websites, said Titania Jordan, Bark’s chief parenting officer.

Other popular monitoring or filtering programs include Qustodio, Net Nanny, Circle With Disney, and many others, all available for monthly fees ranging from $15 to more than $100.

Jordan also encourages parents to talk to their kids about online dangers and not rely on monitoring and filtering software alone.

“You don’t want your kid to ride a bike without a helmet … drive a car without car insurance and a seatbelt and driver’s education,” Jordan said. “ So don’t let them own smartphones without having conversations around what very well and most likely will happen (online).

“It’s not easy to talk to your kids about these sorts of things,” she said. “There’s a great book, ‘Good Pictures, Bad Pictures,’ that helps parents talk to their kids about pornography.”

CYBERBULLYING

An ever-increasing danger for children and teens that sometimes leads to depression and suicide is cyberbullying (See article on page 9).

Often found on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, cyberbullying can even take place on school-issued devices via Google Docs, Jordan said.

Google Docs is an online word processor where one can write content, upload photos, and insert links, music, memes, and gifs, she said. It can be used to share a “digital burn book” to write about others, “almost like an open diary.” Its chat feature allows users editing a single document to communicate with one another, without those messages being saved.

So Bark offers a free product to schools that alerts them whenever cyberbullying is detected on their devices or accounts, she said. It is currently used by more than 1,300 U.S. school districts.

But technology cannot ensure that children will never see inappropriate content, Jordan said. The best way to utilize these products is in conjunction with good communication between parents and kids.

Parents need to know it’s not a matter of if, but when, children will encounter these online dangers, she said. “You need to start talking to them probably sooner than you’d imagined.”