Thanks to shows such as “Dateline: To Catch a Predator,” both adults and kids are well aware of online predators lurking in cyberspace. When it comes to kids and technology, parents are more likely to be blinded by the hype than to absorb the reality.
As more kids head back to school with increasingly sophisticated technology in their backpacks, the mischief they get up to may not have much in common with the hyperbolic tales of evening news shows that reveal humanity at low tide. Or so says Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, which focuses on Internet safety for children, tweens and teens.
“Parents think there are far more sexual predators out there on the Internet than there are in reality,” Aftab said in a recent interview. “The cases in which a child willingly goes out to meet a 50-year-old adult who has conned (him or her) into thinking he’s 15 is far less prevalent than other risks.”
What other risks, you ask? Here in the age of Web 2.0, the possibilities extend as far as a kid’s imagination. Face it, the Internet can be accessed via a cell phone far from a parent’s supervision and video gaming is an online interactive sport where kids can play with total strangers from all over the world. Unfortunately, the one thing most every kid has a tough time imagining is the kind of trouble he or she might be dredging up.
What the kids used to get up to
Just ask 17-year-old Shannon Sullivan – the first official kid to get in trouble on MySpace. These days, the New Jersey high school senior is a member of WiredSafety.org’s youth program, Teen Angels. As a volunteer, Sullivan visits schools to clue kids in on how to avoid cyber pitfalls. Once upon a time, however, she was an 8th grader who allowed her friends to push her into posting a profile on MySpace.
“This was back when MySpace had only 5,000 users and no privacy controls,” Sullivan recalls. The fact that Sullivan and her friends were all too young by MySpace rules to post profiles wasn’t a problem. “We all just wrote that we were 21,” she says.
The problem (for Shannon, anyway) was the fact that her mom is a computer teacher, and her uncle, Bob Sullivan, is the technology journalist who writes msnbc.com’s Red Tape Chronicles.
Once mom discovered her 13-year-old daughter’s MySpace profile, which included her address and other identifying information, it was all over for Sullivan and her friends. Mom called Uncle Bob, who got in contact with WiredSafety.org’s Aftab. Aftab, in turn, got in touch with MySpace, and the rest is history. MySpace, along with other social networking sites, prominently posts Aftab’s suggestions for social networking safety.
What they’re getting up to now
Of course, suggestions are just that, and kids still get into a variety of conundrums on social networking sites. As Shannon Sullivan points out, you can be rocket-science smart when it comes to social networking safety — but you still can’t trust even your best friends.
“People put their cell phone numbers online and the phone numbers of their friends,” Sullivan says of her peers. “And there isn’t even any reason to do that. If you’re just talking to your friends online, they already have their phone number.”
She adds that parents really should check their kid’s profiles as well as the profiles of their friends. “Kids post their schools, where they’re going after school and they may not even use the privacy controls on the sites so that only their friends can see this information — that’s when posting personal information can get dangerous.”
How personal is personal? Pretty darned intimate when posting photos comes into play. “You’ve got girls posing in bras because it seems like a safe way to be sexual,” says Aftab.
Sending private and potentially embarrassing cell phone pictures on impulse can also cause problems. “What (kids) don’t realize is that this is not the kind of attention they want to be drawing to themselves. And when something goes online, it’s on the Internet forever. It comes back when you’re applying for colleges or looking for a job.”
This easy-access technology has an even darker side — cyberbullying. It’s a problem that WiredSafety.org asserts is growing even as it’s getting more attention.
“For a lot of tweens and teenagers, it just turns into a catfight online,” says Sullivan who discusses this problem regularly when she’s visiting schools.
Since the bullying doesn’t happen face to face, the anonymity can allow the issue to quickly escalate. Sullivan contends that even kids who wouldn’t bully face to face can be quickly seduced by the power rush of bullying — even bullying their friends.
Since the bullying is taking place through communication technology, the victims aren’t even safe at home, where they might obsessively review the cruel texts or Internet posts wherever they have access. Just recently, two news stories illustrated how extreme cyberbullying can become
You might remember the Florida teenagers who beat up their former friend so they could post the video on YouTube. And currently, Aftab works closely with Tina Meier, mother of Megan Meier, the 13-year-old in Missouri who committed suicide last year when the boy she thought she was communicating with on MySpace suddenly turned against her.
In this precedent-setting incident, it turned out that the boy, “Josh,” was actually the invention of Megan’s school acquaintance, and the school acquaintance’s mother. This school year, Megan’s mother, Aftab and Aftab’s Internet safety initiatives will launch a widespread cyberbullying education campaign in schools.
The “Three Cs” every parent should learn
Of course, there’s no way to protect kids 100 percent from the mistakes they’re bound to make — both with technology and with life. However, Aftab points out that open communication can go a long way.
She points out that technology is a tool that can be used to great benefit or detriment. When it comes to supplying kids with these tools, she urges parents to follow the Three Cs: Content, contact and cost.
“Even parents that don’t know that much about technology can ask the salesperson these questions,” Aftab says. “Can this piece of technology allow access to questionable content, and if so, can it be filtered? Can it be protected from malware that might cause the device to blow up? Can it download movies or music illegally that can lead to getting sued? Can it allow contact with others, and if so, can that communication be monitored? And then, cost. Ask if the device will have other costs, such as ring tones or music.”
Will those Three Cs barricade your little angel from the pitfalls of a wired world? Eh, not so much. But combine it with “communication,” and you’ve at least added padding when they fall.