In middle school, children become more involved with social media. And that means parents must sharpen their watchful eye.
“As it stands right now, my teenage daughter has internet access as long as she is seated at the dining room table,” says Anne Romine, Palm Beach County mother of two daughters. “I feel it is one small measure of control to keep the internet out of her bedroom.”
With smartphones and unlimited access to the internet, keeping children safe on the Web probably feels like a full-time job. On popular social media hubs, such as Snapchat and Instagram, children might share inappropriate photos, as well as experience cyberbullying. Even simple texting can become dangerous “sexting” if kids decide to view — or send — nude or semi-nude photos.
Parents should watch for certain behaviors that might suggest your children have fallen prey to an online predator, such as finding inappropriate material on their computers or spotting unknown numbers on the phone bill, according to NetSmartz, a program of National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. If your child is becoming withdrawn and isolated from family and friends, or if he or she starts receiving mail, money or gifts from unknown people, take action.
Parents often wonder whether it’s appropriate to allow access to cell phones, computers or tablets — and how much.
“If you see your child hiding their internet usage on the phone, tablet or gaming system, they might be doing something they don’t want you to see,” says Gregory Schiller, assistant state attorney with Palm Beach County’s Special Victims Unit – Sexual Predator Enforcement. “If your child is using the internet when they should be sleeping . . . they might be engaged in risky online behavior.”
A good option is non-smartphones limited to only calls and texts, Schiller says. Keep internet-accessible devices in a group area of the home and turn off Wi-Fi at night.
Open communication with your child, dependent on age and development, is critical, says Nancy A. McBride, former executive director of Florida outreach for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “Being open encourages a meaningful dialogue between you and your child,” she says.
McBride suggests asking your child these questions:
- Who do you usually talk to online?
- Do you trust the people you meet online? Why or why not?
- What could happen if you meet an online friend in person?
- Has anyone online offered you gifts?
- Who do you talk to about a problem? Would you feel comfortable talking to me?
“As a parent of three teenage boys, we’ve had numerous discussions about appropriate online communication,” Palm Beach County mom Lisa Cole says. “All of us have grappled with these issues and made some mistakes, but we've talked openly both one-on-one and as a family.”
Schiller encourages talking with children the same way you would about drugs and alcohol or driving a car. “The difference is that internet safety inherently requires education about sexually related topics. . . . Consider the alternative: If you don’t talk to them, a Google search will educate them about sex, rather than you,” he says.
It is possible to broach the touchy issues of sexting and sexual abuse without inducing fear or panic in your child. “Any conversation on these sensitive topics should be conducted in a reassuring, open manner, allowing your child to take in the information, ask questions and discuss with you,” McBride says.
As Schiller says, “We can’t use kid gloves with our children when it comes to this topic. If we are going to allow our children to access an adult world, then they have to be educated about adult subjects.”
Parents may wrestle with whether to permit their children on the same social media sites that their friends use.
“Kids are using social media as a way to define their identity,” says Kimberly Sanders, a Palm Beach County parent of three and director of youth ministry at her church. “As parents and youth leaders, we need to help them set healthy boundaries and see their significance regardless of images, stories and comparisons on Instagram, Snapchat, etc.”
It’s important to review your children’s friend lists to see who has access to their profiles and if your children know all the friends in person, according to NetSmartz. Check the friends’ profiles for revealing photos or information about your child. Set your children’s profiles to private, but be aware that complete privacy is not guaranteed. Remove any inappropriate content and photos, delete too-personal information and report any inappropriate behavior to site administrators. Report criminal — or inappropriate — behavior to law-enforcement agencies through tools such as National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline.com.
If you discover your children’s friends are sexting, start a discussion with your children by asking if they have ever received a sexual message or naked picture on their cell phones, according to NetSmartz. Ask if they have felt pressured or bullied to send – or receive – a nude or sexual picture. Talk about the possible social, academic and legal consequences of sexting. Encourage them to be neither a bystander nor an instigator and to learn about their school’s policy on cyberbullying and sexting. Remind them to talk to you first if they receive a nude picture and to never forward it.
McBride encourages parents in need of local help to contact the Florida office of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 561.848.1900 or email email@example.com.
NetSmartz recommends using this internet safety pledge for middle schoolers to spur discussion with your child and create safe boundaries.
- I will think before I post. I agree not to post information and images that could put me at risk, embarrass me, or damage my future, such as cell and home phone numbers, home address, sexual messages and inappropriate pictures and videos.
- I will respect other people online. I will not: post anything rude, offensive, or threatening; send or forward images and information that might embarrass, hurt, or harass someone; or take anyone's personal information and use it to damage his or her reputation.
- I will be careful when meeting online friends in person. I agree to ask my parent or guardian's permission before going, have a parent or guardian accompany me, and meet in a public place.
- I will protect myself online. If someone makes me feel uncomfortable or if someone is rude or offensive, I will: not respond; save the evidence; tell my parent, guardian, or another trusted adult; and report to the website, cell phone company, CyberTipline.com, or the police.
• Nancy McBride, former executive director, Florida Outreach, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
• Gregory Schiller, Special Victims Unit, Office of the State Attorney