Wes: In February 2008, 49 state attorneys general created the Internet Safety Technical Task Force to address what many considered a growing problem of sexual predators soliciting children online. Longtime readers may recall that we’ve discussed this issue from the inception of this column. Our position has been that parents should instead focus their concerns on their children’s online behavior rather than online predators. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that life’s problems are “out there” with other people and other families, that our children are influenced by external factors or sucked into seedy plots, when the answers are usually closer to home.
This is nothing new, of course. The idea of “stranger danger” remains a key element in teaching children personal safety awareness — despite the fact that the vast majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by those who regularly participate in the lives of their victims. Understandably, we’d rather imagine these threats as being out of our realm. Yet if one doesn’t understand and accept real dangers, one cannot be safe from them. As the research rolls out on this topic, that view continues to be upheld.
In August 2006, we discussed a large study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which found teens were actually becoming “smarter about where they hang out and with whom they communicate online.” Most of the sexual solicitations they received “came from other teens rather than adults, and few rose to the level of predation.” The report concluded, “ .... the dangers are real, but they are not as significant as they have been hyped in recent months. ... People have fears that these crimes involve offenders and predators who look at these sites and then seek to identify these kids. That’s not really what’s going on.”
In January of this year, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force filed it’s own report and once again found that the biggest threat to children’s safety online comes from the peer group and that the child user’s own behavior contributes significantly to the trouble he or she encounters online. They note, “minors are not equally at risk online. ... Those who are most at risk often engage in risky behaviors and have difficulties in other parts of their lives.” As we have discussed for several years, the task force also found that bullying and harassment among peers are actually the most frequent problems minors face both on and offline.
There are probably some challenges to the report worth noting, but I’ll leave that to readers to investigate. The main point here is that just like every other aspect of life for teens and parents, the online world requires sensible and responsible behavior. Of course, there are people online waiting to take advantage of others. Those people also exist at the mall, in our schools, our families and even in our places of worship. The best defense against exploitation is to spend time with our kids from their early childhood, teaching them how to engage with others online and off. It’s especially important to teach them how to represent themselves online and to understand that once it’s posted, it’s up there forever. It’s also important to have some boundaries. Lately, I’ve begun seeing an increase in elementary students accessing Facebook and MySpace without supervision — indefensible, given the power of the medium in very young hands. Solid parental involvement is far more difficult and time-consuming than just throwing up your hands and shutting down the Internet to avoid lurking online predators. But it’s also more effective in keeping our kids safe.
Kelly: In this age, parents may find themselves at the end of their ropes with the growing popularity of the Internet. Yes, there are numerous parental control settings that may alleviate some of the worries. However, none can protect your children from the everyday dangers society has to offer. And as much as you attempt to prevent your children from such dangers, chances are you may be too late, and they’ve could have already experienced it.
People use the Internet for all reasons and types of communication, and to keep in contact with friends, co-workers or family members. Others tend to abuse it by engaging in riskier sexual behavior. Yet many don’t realize how damaging the Internet can be. Some may use it as a mechanism to escape from reality and allow for their fantasies to be unleashed. These same ideals may be taken advantage of by predators, luring your children in.
I do believe as a parent it is important to monitor your child’s behavior, online and off. But while doing so, be sure to educate your children in the process. Explain to them the dangers present on the Internet and what to do in case something happens. There also are warning signs that your child is engaging in inappropriate behavior online. Pay attention to the obvious signs such as spending too much time using the Internet. Look at the recent browsing history, and do not be afraid to question any Web site that seems odd. If you find that there are unusual phone numbers calling your child’s cell or house phone, speak up. More subtle signs include your child become withdrawn from the family.
If you have a younger child using the popular social networks, I highly recommending pulling the plug. Instead of having them engaged in two-dimensional communications, make a play date with your child and his/her friend. Now is not the time for your children to become so completely betrothed in society’s latest trend.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.