Parents aren’t alone in online safety battle

  • Irene Woods of The Children's Advocacy Center of Franklin County and North Quabbin on Wisdom Way in Greenfield stands amoung the 124 pinwheels spinning in the wind that she erected. Each pinwheel represents a child that was interviewed last year at the center. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 5/15/2020 8:49:27 AM
Modified: 5/15/2020 8:49:15 AM

Life as we knew it changed practically overnight in March. We left our offices and schools with little time to prepare as we shuttered ourselves inside our homes to keep a virus at bay. As the weeks passed, we came to terms with our new reality and adjusted to our novel routines. Changes to our lives included a drastic increase in the amount of time we spend online for work, school and entertainment.

While having internet access has been a saving grace for adults and youth alike, it is not without risks. To help children cope with frustration, isolation and countless losses, parents have had little choice but to discard their pre-pandemic screen-time limits and relax rules for device usage.

The good news is that it is perfectly OK. We are all in survival mode, and we need to do whatever we have to do to get through this crisis. However, it is imperative for us to remember that while we can set aside some of the restrictions we previously enforced, we cannot set aside our children’s safety along with them.

As parents, we have mastered childproofing and taught stranger danger, but once our kids are old enough to venture online alone, our safety obligations can be harder to understand and seemingly impossible to keep up with. And media techs constantly work on new ways to lure youth to inappropriate sites that they had no intention of visiting. Experts report that on average, children first see internet pornography at just 8 years old, with almost half of kids ages 11-16 having viewed it. Forty percent of unintended pornography exposure results from innocent word searches, while pop-ups and clicks on benign links fall next in frequency (Child Welfare League of America.)

Sadly, online pornography is just one of the issues parents need to be aware of. Sexting — sending sexually explicit images or messages — has become as normal to today’s teens as passing notes in class was to us. And sexual predators really are searching the internet for children, contacting them at much younger ages than previously thought. Ten to 15 percent of online elementary-aged children will be messaged by a predator. Professionals advise parents to talk with their children 5 years before they think they need to. Additionally, while apps have the most dangerous reputation, gaming is equally risky. Any platform that allows youth to connect with strangers poses a danger. This includes sites assumed to be safe, such as Etsy, Pinterest, and XBOX.

There is some good news, however. Parents aren’t alone in this battle. Many experts are now making it their life’s work to keep kids safe online. Organizations like Protect Young Eyes (www.ProtectYoungEyes.com) write E-newsletters summarizing the dangers of technology and what parents can do to protect their children. Another company, BARK (www.bark.us), offers online monitoring services that allow teens their privacy while keying in on concerning words. Free internet safety information for parents and teaching videos for youth of all ages, is available at www.NetSmartzkids.org and www.CommonSenseMedia.org. And content and domain filtering services exist at sites such as www.CleanBrowsing.org and www.SafeSearchKids.com.

There are also many general recommendations that are highly effective. One of the simplest, yet most important rules is to teach kids to never talk to anyone online that they do not know in person. Chris McKenna, founder of Protect Young Eyes, adds, “Your nice kid needs to know how to walk away from a nice predator.” Additionally, he recommends that devices be used in common areas whenever possible. If youth must work alone in their rooms, screens should be positioned so that they are visible from opened doorways. Parents should also utilize the safety controls on all platforms and devices.

Experts agree that the best way for parents to protect their children is by regularly discussing internet dangers, explaining why limits are being set and listening to their concerns. Additionally, expressing interest in their favorite apps and games, and using the internet together, as a family, helps kids feel more comfortable asking questions. Finally, youth should be assured that they are always safe coming to parents to discuss troubling things that happened online — they need to be certain that they never have to deal with such difficulties alone.

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Franklin County & North Quabbin, Inc. is here to discuss any topics related to area youth. Contact the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children’s Coordinator Joanne Leonard at jleonard@cacfranklinnq.org for safety information or support. All staff can be reached at 413-475-3401.

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