Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cyber-Safety, For You and For Your Kids

By Martha Hunt, M.A. Health Promotions Coordinator

Summer vacation is in full swing and your kids may spend time home alone surfing the net and looking for all sorts of fun and excitement. Cyber-violence has become a major problem in the US. The focus of most cyber-violence is women and children and takes the form of stalking, mental and emotional abuse, and in extreme cases kidnap, sexual assault and murder. In fact, several suicides of teenage girls have been caused by someone online bullying the teen until they felt the only way out was to kill themselves.

The issue of social network sites such as myspace has enabled the problem of easy access to children whose parents either allow the use of social networking or are unaware of their child’s use of such a site. The FBI estimates that there are over 200 of these free social network sites and sex offenders routinely use these sites to access potential victims and abuse them.

Recent data shows that as many as 1 in 5 children have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the internet in the past year. One-in three of the children who had received a solicitation were male; the rest were female. Three quarters of the solicitation victims were 14 to 17 years old leaving nearly one quarter under the age of thirteen. This same research study also reports that most children do not report these incidents to their parents or teachers because of fear or embarrassment.

Another startling finding of this research showed that most homes do not use filtering or child safety soft ware. There are many software programs available and be sure to access one that is appropriate to the age of your child. Younger children will have a harder time disabling the security software than older children who may need stricter software to protect them. The website http://familyinternet.about.com/cs/filteringsoftware/a/aafiltering.htm offers a good overview of available filtering software and how to pick one that is appropriate for your family’s needs.

Cyber-violence, like any violence, is really an issue of power. Cyber-stalkers are empowered by the anonymity of the Internet. Since you cannot see them, hear their voice or (usually) trace them, they feel free to say or do as they wish to the inexperienced Internet user.

Cyber-violence is real. What makes it real is that it occurs in one’s mind just like any verbal or emotional abuse. The victims of cyber-violence are just as affected by the assault as they would be if the assailant were actually in their home with them. Outcomes of cyber-violence mirror the emotional and physical aspects of post traumatic stress syndrome including sleeplessness, depression, agitation, fear, etc. When cyber-violence crosses the line to real life violence, the results can be deadly.

It is very easy to simply say to the victim, either the child or adult, “simply disconnect the computer when you feel threatened”. However, this then places the blame on the victim and denies the fact that many predators, real and cyber, can be very smooth in their approach to the victim. A few years ago a little girl in San Diego was murdered and then explicit images of her posted on the internet. The victim knew her predator - he lived next door and her parents socialized regularly with him. She trusted him. The predators who assault children, online as well as in real life, go to great lengths to become friends with the child first to earn their trust.

Guidelines for defending yourself and your children involve protecting your privacy as best as you can and maintaining open lines of communication with your children as to their online activities. Learning proper ‘netiquette’ (online etiquette) will help you to blend into the social structure of the Internet. If you stand out as being a ‘newbie”, you open yourself as a target to potential abusers.

Always make sure when using any chat related software that your privacy options are enabled as well as logging options. Examples of chat related software are mIRC, ICQ, PIRCH, JAVA, or AOL. By ensuring that your privacy options are enabled, a potential abuser cannot track you or identify any personal information about you.

Never use your real name or any personal information about yourself when you set up your chat software. This can sometimes be accessed very easily by anyone on the same net as you, and leave you open to invasion of privacy. Never give anyone any personal information about yourself. This includes photographs, phone numbers, addresses, and home towns - anything that can identify you. Even the smallest bit of personal information can be used to track who you are in real life.

By ensuring that your logging option is effective, you keep a written record of every conversation you or your child engages in, both in public chat rooms and in private chats. These logs can also be enabled to record time and date stamps and any available identifying information of the chat participants. If you are ever cyber-stalked or abused in any way while online, the logs are written proof that the conversation that took place and who were the participants.

Think of your children on line like this – if you don’t let your child talk to strangers in a shopping mall, why would you let them talk to strangers online? If your kids are using the home computer, place it in a common area of the home. This will enable the child to call for help if they feel threatened and will also allow you as the parent to monitor their activities more easily. If you prefer that your children do not use the chat software on your computer at all, it can be password protected in the software security options. Then only you as the parent knows the password and has access to the chat software. And don’t use easily guessed passwords. Your kids are smarter than you think about guessing your passwords.

If for some reason you do decide to meet someone in real life that you have developed a relationship with online, never meet them at your home or theirs. Always choose a safe, public place to meet and always have a ‘safe call”. That means that a friend knows exactly where you are and with whom, that you have the phone number of the person you are meeting, and you have pre-arranged to call that friend at a specific time and let them know you are safe. This way, if you fail to make the ‘safe call’, your friend can notify authorities. If the person you are meeting refuses to give you their home phone number, refuse to meet them. Children should never meet anyone in real life that they have met online period!

If you feel you are a victim of cyber-violence you do have options. Some forms of cyber-violence such as hacking or damaging another’s machine are federal offences and are reportable to the FBI. Also, report the incidents to your Internet Service Provider (ISP). This is when you need to access the logs you have recorded when you enabled the logging option in the chat software.

Sometimes you need to be persistent when reporting to the FBI or to your ISP. They receive so many complaints that they become overloaded with them and may not readily respond to your complaint. If it is proven that a specific individual has committed a crime, then they will be banned forever from service with that ISP. If the cyber-stalker somehow gets your phone number or address and threatens you in real life, report it to your local police. Many states, including California, have begun to enact cyber-violence laws and all 50 states have stalking laws.

The Internet can afford incredible growing experiences. Not all people online are evil stalkers or pedophiles. You can meet and talk to people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe. However, you must also use an extreme degree of caution when dealing with anyone online to ensure your own safety as well as that of your children.

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