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What Can Parents Do About Web Safety?

It should come as no surprise that parental involvement is the key to keeping kids safe online. You can lecture your kids, you can install filters to block objectionable websites, you can spy on your kids and you even can try to keep your kid off the Internet, but none of those tactics are as effective as engaging them in conversation about what they're doing online.

This is especially true in the "Web 2.0" era of the interactive Internet when kids are not only "downloading" inappropriate information but "uploading" information about themselves in social networking sites like MySpace and even video sites like YouTube. Today, parents have to worry not just what their kids "see" on the net but what they "say" as well.

So what does it mean to be an involved parent? It doesn't necessarily mean standing over your kid's shoulder every time he or she goes online, but it does mean talking with your kids – especially your teens – on a regular basis about their internet activities.

And don't just focus on porn and predators. There are other "risks" for kids ranging from cyber bullying to net addiction to commercial exploitation. If your kids open up about bad experiences, don't overreact or blame the victim. Listen carefully and appreciate that fact that they're coming forward.

Your children may not want to talk about any negative experiences they've had online, but don't let that stop you from talking with them about dangers on the Internet. Don't exaggerate but do warn kids that getting giving out personal information and getting together with people they meet online can be dangerous. Let them know that the safest way to deal with unwanted solicitations is to not respond.

Don't think that kids aren't listening. Just as with messages about smoking and other dangerous substances, parents do have an impact. A national survey of teens conducted by the Boys and Girls Clubs found that "more than 1 in 3 youth (37%) stated that their relationship with their parents/guardians was most important to them... Surprisingly, nearly half (45%) of all respondents said that their parents most significantly influence their decisions, rather than their peers."

When it comes to bad things that can happen, let's look at some numbers, starting with the "2 P's" – porn and predators.. Earlier this year the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center reported the results of a 2005 national survey of 1,500 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17. The study found that one in seven (13%) had received "unwanted sexual solicitations or approaches in the past year." That's down from one in five from the 1999 survey.

Before you become alarmed, it's important to note that not all of those solicitations came from adult "predators." In the 2005 survey "those younger than 18 were identified as solicitors in a substantial number of incidents — 43%." Thirty-nine percent of the solicitors were described as over 18 with the majority of that group (30%) between 18 and 25 and 14% of the solicitors were people the young victims knew in person prior to the solicitation.

While it's important to protect children of all ages, the survey, like previous studies, found that teens are at greater risk: "90% of the sexual solicitations happened to youths who were 13 or older."

From a prevention standpoint, one of the most important observations from the study, based on interviews with law enforcement officials, is the finding that "offenders rarely used deceit or violence. Rather they appealed to adolescents' interest in romance and sex."

Bottom line: Predators can't physically molest a child via the Internet. They must first convince the child to meet with them and that's nearly always done through persuasion, not force.

Of course, any report of an unwanted sexual solicitation is disturbing but there is some good news about how young people dealt with those incidents: "Most youth (66%) handled unwanted solicitations by removing themselves from the situation, by blocking the solicitor, or leaving the web site or computer. Other youth told the person to stop, confronted or warned the solicitor (16%), while others ignored them (11%)."

Unfortunately most kids who experienced these incidents didn't report them to parents or authorities. Only 5% were referred to law enforcement, 12% said they reported it to their parents while only 2% reported it to teachers or school personnel. "In more than half of cases (56%), youth did not tell anyone about solicitations."

From a percentage standpoint, exposure to unwanted porn is a bigger and growing problem. 34% of the teens "received unwanted exposures to sexual material" up from 25% in the 1999 survey. Again there is some good news about how young people dealt with unwanted porn.

"The great majority of youth (92%)," according to the survey, "simply removed themselves from the situation by blocking or leaving the site or computer when they encountered unwanted sexual material. Few youths (2%) who encountered sexual material while surfing said they went back to that site later."

The key word here is "unwanted." The study didn't deal with cases where teens were looking for porn.

Another serious problem is cyber-bullying, in which children are harassed, bullied, embarrassed, defamed or pressured via the Internet or cell phone. Examples of cyber-bullying include using email or other messages to threaten a child, but it can also include spreading malicious rumors or innuendoes, online sexual harassment.

Cyber-bullying can happen in chat rooms, on websites, on blogs or social networking profiles and via instant messaging and cell phone text messaging.

How widespread is cyber-bullying? The survey found that "9% of young Internet users said they were harassed online in the past year. 6% percent said someone was bothering or harassing them online and 3% said someone had posted or sent messages about them for other people to see. Also 3% of youth described an incident of distressing online harassment, which left them feeling "very or extremely upset or afraid." In a third of the cases, the harassment included "contact or attempts at contact by telephone, offline mail or in person."

The targets, according to the report, were 58% girls and 42% boys. "Girls were more likely than boys to experience distressing harassment (68% compared to 32%) The majority of harassment episodes (72%) happened to teenagers ages 14 to 17."

Of course there are many other issues of concern to teens and parents. Loss of reputation is a growing problem as teens put inappropriate information on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

Teens posting pictures of teens in sexually provocative poses or in the presence of alcohol or illegal drugs may seem cool at the time but can come back to haunt them later, especially if discovered by school officials, potential employers, admission counselors or parents.

Kids need to understand the legal and academic consequences of illegal or unethical behavior – or the perception that either has occurred.

And, like the rest of us, they need to be aware that not everything they see on the Internet is necessarily true.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid