Protect Your Child: Find Out What They Post Online

Does your child have a Web site or free space on a big Web server? If your answer is no, are you sure? You need to know because what gets posted to such online areas on the Internet can transform your child from innocent explorer into the target of everything from unsavory new acquaintances to sexual predators. You can protect your child best only if you know what they post on their Web space.

Recent cases in the news hammer this point home. Teens and pre-teens have been known to put just about everything on a Web site or Web space. Most of the time, it is fairly innocent. Kids do, however, often have a blind spot to the potential dangers when they publicly post their home or mailing address and their phone number(s). This blind spot persists no matter how many times Mom and Dad warns them to be careful.

Yet kids sometimes go beyond this to post sexually-oriented material, confidential files, and illegally distributed software, movies, and music. Some also publish hate screeds and threats against others, recommendations for crimes or brags about the bad acts they have committed, or invitations to have others contact them for phone or online sex.

If all of this sounds scary, it should. If you have no idea what your children place on these free Web spaces and Web sites, you have no way to protect your children. While the media makes much about online sexual predators trying to lure kids, this is just one potential danger.

Across the U.S., many children – along with their parents – have been hit by charges for the activities that go on from a child’s online activities. Media companies have filed suit against the parents of kids who download illegal copies of pirate films, DVDs and CDs. I’ve documented kids as young as 11 or 12 using Internet chat rooms to trade credit card numbers they have stolen from family and neighbors. I’ve called parents who had no idea their 14-year-old daughter or 11-year-old son was distributing half-nude photographs of themselves to strangers.

Many experts believe the issue has become so serious, with so much potential for danger from online child predators, that parents must take a firm hand in policing what their kids post on the Internet. Various types of software can control what sites are visited and more advanced utilities can track every keystroke, email, message, and chat word a child types.

Some experts go so far as to tell parents that they give their kids notice: clean up your Web space or else. They suggest telling kids that the parent will visit that Web space in an hour or a day then follow-through with that visit. If the kids fail to remove objectionable material, these same experts say to pull the account. Finally, they tell parents to follow-up with visits to the Web space every few days or weeks to make certain children aren’t simply hiding objectionable stuff until their parents are not looking.

As a long-time highly experienced online manager myself, and someone who had to raise a teenager, I think it is both important for parents to monitor what their kids do online as well as give their kids a certain amount of freedom of expression. By all means, find out whether your kids keep a Web space and visit it regularly. While there, you should look very closely at what is posted. Anything that could compromise your children’s safety, privacy, or comfort level should be removed. So should anything that appears illegal.

Yet I also caution against forcing a child to remove absolutely everything they hold dear. For example, you might not like a slogan on a t-shirt they wear in a photo they post online. But will you protect your child or alienate him if you insist he take that photo offline? Likewise, if your teen posts political messages that may not reflect your own view of the world, your son or daughter may not want to remove these.

There is another issue that some experts frequently miss when they talk about rigid policing of Web space by parents. Namely, while a parent can cancel accounts they know about and move a child’s computer from the bedroom into the living or family room, they won’t necessarily protect their children. This is because these kids can go elsewhere to create new accounts with free Web space you may never find out about. Even if they can’t publish content for that Web space from the privacy of their bedrooms, they can from the computers at school, the public library, or their friends’ homes. Your kids won’t tell you either, especially if you’ve forced them to kill or take apart another Web space.

However, if you can ride the careful line between careful monitoring to protect your children while still making it possible for them to express themselves legitimately on their own Web space, you may be able to prevent your child from rebelling against your measures.

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