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Protect Your Family Online

Living in the moment can be detrimental for your children when it comes to online safety.

Kids today are really no different than in years past as far as judgment is concerned. They seldom think about how their momentary actions will affect their future. Many don’t understand that what they post online may come back to haunt them years later or that it can open a door for sexual predators.

“Once you put something out there, you can’t get it back,” explains Nancy McBride, safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.“It’s likely archived somewhere. You think it’s gone but it’s really not gone.”

Posting, emailing, texting – kids need to know: Once we “put something out there,” there’s no getting it back. 

While the Internet is a valuable tool, it can also become unsafe territory for children, adolescents and teens. As a parent, you must always be aware of What your kids are doing when they are online.

“There’s a misconception that when your children are home, you know what they are doing,” observes McBride. “Just like you set rules for kids when they are out and about, you need to have rules set up for what they are doing online.

“With today’s technology, kids can be online anytime and anywhere. They don’t have to be on the computer at home.They can be on their cell phone or on WiFi anywhere it is available.

It’s crucial that you talk with your kids about Internet safety. Ask them to show you their favorite sites. Become familiar with child-friendly search engines as well as the lingo your children are using online and for texting by going to a site such as “The sole purpose of that site is to keep up with acronyms,” McBride says.

If your children visit chat rooms, make sure they are child-friendly chat sites. As cloaked cyberspaces, chat rooms have been a breeding ground for sexual predators for some time; however, now with the growing popularity of social networking, these molesters are turning their attention to sites such as Facebook. That’s why it’s important for parents to monitor their children when they are using social networking sites.

Sites on top of the lingo and acronyms your kids use to communicate. 

“You want to make sure you know what’s posted on your child’s page and profile,” McBride says. “You don’t want any kind of sexually provocative language, photos or videos.”

McBride suggests that parents set up their own Facebook page and send a friend request to their children. This will help you monitor what your children are Doing on their site. If you start to see that your child is not making posts to that site, it may mean that he or she has more than one Facebook account, a cause for concern.

Paul Messing, acting cyber supervisor for the Richmond office of the FBI, is seeing a definite increase in the use of the social networking sites as well as cell phone sexting, sending sexually explicit photos through the phone.

“What we try to tell kids is to be careful about what they post,” he says.“Nothing you do is private. You have to treat whatever you put out there like it is public domain. I tell kids ‘Don’t post anything on your site you wouldn’t want your grandma to see or read.’”

There are different risk factors that could put your child in danger when he or she is online. Studies show that a combination of the following factors presents a higher risk of danger: posting personal information; interacting with unknown people online; making rude comments or cyber bullying; downloading images from file-sharing programs; visiting x-rated or adult porn sites; talking about sex online to unknown people; embarrassing or harassing people online.

“You want to make sure that your kids and teens are acting responsibly online,” McBride says. “They have to accept this responsibility and know the consequences.”

Help children apply the rules of decency and common sense to electronic and online behaviors. 

The same holds true for sharing sexually provocative photos online or on a cell phone. Adolescents and teens may feel that their boyfriend or girlfriend will keep the photos private, but when the romance fades and the two break up, the photos could see wide distribution, especially if the breakup was not amicable. “The kids [whose photos are being sent out] are teased and harassed. You can have retaliation that can last a lifetime,” McBride says. “It can lead some kids to suicide.”

There is very little privacy online, even if a child’s profile is set to private. For example, your child may accept a friend as a Facebook friend. That friend may have Facebook friends who don’t like your child but who now have access To his or her profile because they share mutual friends. “Your child may not like that person or want him or her visiting the site,” Messing says.

Before “friending” someone, kids and teens should make sure they know who is being granted access to their page. “Once they are in there, they can copy off photos and text,” Messing says. “On the Internet anybody can pose as anyone.”

Don’t be afraid to set limits on your children when they are using the Internet. “You can create pledges/ agreements between you and your child,” McBride says, adding that parents have to be parents and not try to be their child’s friend. If they see something that may be worrisome, they have to step up and say, ‘This is not right!’”

While Internet safety should always be top-of-mind, it’s only one way that children can be victimized. Children and teens are also susceptible to identity theft. The most common type of identity theft involving this age group is social security theft. Thieves will often use a child’s social security number for their financial gain. “Parents don’t check their child’s credit record regularly,” observes Mike Schuler, supervisory special agent with the FBI Richmond Office.

Social security thieves are never concerned with the age of the person they are victimizing. “They are just looking for information,” says Richard Swed of The Risk Management Group.“Credit cards can be opened in a child’s name and houses can be bought with their name.”

Social security numbers can be obtained in a variety of ways, from hacking into a computer database to stealing prepaid credit card offers out of the mailbox. Some credit card companies will mistakenly target children for special offers. “If your child has a frequent flyer number, for example, there are credit cards associated with the program,”Schuler says.

Swed suggests that parents check the three main credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – on a yearly basis to make sure the bureaus don’t have a credit card file on their child.

Like sexual predators, these thieves know all the angles when it comes to getting information. Swed adds. “There are a ton of ways for someone to steal your identity. [Always] be diligent about who your children give their information to.” And make sure your children are fully aware of the risks.

An award-winning writer based in Richmond, Joan Tupponce is a parent, grandparent, and self-admitted Disney freak. She writes about anything and everything and enjoys meeting inspiring people and telling their stories. Joan’s work has appeared in RFM since the magazine’s first issue in October 2009. Look for original and exclusive online articles about Richmond-area people, places, and ideas at Just Joan: RVA Storyteller.
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