Parents Offered Guidance On Keeping Kids Safe Online

By: Tim Wood

There are many steps parents can take to monitor their children's online activities and protect them from negative experiences like cyberbullying.

The most dangerous four-letter word in the digital world is “Send.”

“Once you send it, you have no control over it,” Bill Burke of the Cape and Islands District Attorney's Office community outreach program said, during a recent “Parent University” on technology and social media at Monomoy Regional High School. “You can never get it back.”

That not only goes for potentially illegal activities like sexting and uploading nude or other inappropriate photographs – which can be easily shared or altered without the sender's knowledge – but also something as simple as a rash reply to an email or text.

“Don't text when you are angry,” Burke advised.

The presentation provided parents with tools to monitor their children's online activities as well as a rundown on the websites and apps that are popular with kids these days. Some are eye-opening, such as Omegle, a website and app that allows users to chat with other users chosen at random. It's tag is “Talk to Strangers.” That's not only antithetical to what children are taught about online activities, but it can also be dangerous, Burke said.

“If you don't have to say who you are, you shouldn't be on it,” he said.

Some of the suggestions are common sense, such as requiring children to share their user name and passwords with parents and taking away devices at night so kids aren't tempted to check alerts and stay up late chatting with friends.

Others are less obvious, such as disabling location services on devices such as phones and tablets. Most apps and many websites want to know where you are, Burke said, “because they want to sell you things.”

Kids should also know that they need to get permission from friends to post their photos online, and they need to realize that anything they post will remain online basically forever.

“Nothing is ever deleted,” he said. “It stays on a server somewhere.”

This is especially important for older kids to know as they head into the college search process. Many colleges check Facebook and other social media sites, and that digital footprint remains as they enter the job market.

In the past decade, Burke and others in the District Attorney's community outreach program have spoken about technology and the digital world to more than 15,000 students on the Cape and Islands. One of the main topics they focus on with students is how those activities can cross a line and become criminal. Angry phone calls, harassment, cyberbullying, unauthorized computer access, identity theft are major issues in juvenile court these days, while more drastic violations such as civil rights violations and child pornography veer into felony territory and have serious consequences.

“We've talked to a lot of students,” he said, “and most of them are listening to us.”

He urged parents to maintain an open line of communication with children and talk to them about their online activities. Update privacy and GPS/location settings and follow or friend your kids on social media to keep up on their activities. Devices can be set up to require parental permission to approve downloading apps. Software is available that allows parents to monitor and regulate device usage, and he recommended creating digital-free zones and times in homes and schools. Get familiar with the school's student handbook, which contains guidelines and rules for internet and device use.

Middle school is the perfect time to talk to kids about these topics, he said. “They know what's going on but they are still attentive and I believe they listen to us,” Burke said. High school age, he added, “is tougher.”

While Facebook gets a lot of press and many parents use the service, few kids are on it these days. Other apps and sites that have kids' attention now include Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Wanelo, Pheed, Live.me, Houseparty and Ask.fm. Many of these have in-app purchases and harvest user information.

Burke referred parents to NetSmartz.org, an educational program of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which has a host of tools and tips on keeping kids safe online, focusing on such topics as cyberbullying, online predators and “sharing too much.” An internet safety rules contract can be downloaded that calls on kids to think before they post; respect others online; be careful when meeting online friends in person; and protecting themselves online.

Other online resources for parents include Common Sense Media and the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, which provides free and low-cost bullying and cyberbullying prevention research and resources to schools and families (www.marccenter.org).