Your Child and Online Safety: Communication Matters

By Melanie Wells


Virtually all parents – when they have doubts or agonize over solving a child-rearing problem – share a drive to reach the goal that trumps all others: to “keep my child safe.” The Internet has expanded the territory parents need to cover, and at the October 7th PIA Fall Seminar, attendees received insight and guidance on how best to do so, from Chauncey Parker, Special Policy Advisor in the Manhattan DA’s office; and Liz Repking, Founder of Cyber Safety and Consulting.

In a free-ranging discussion of Online Safety and Parenting in the Digital Age, Repking and Parker, although coming from differing areas of expertise (digital technology and criminal justice) found common ground on which to base two fundamental and valuable pieces of advice to parents:

Choices matter; and
Talk to your kids.

Ms. Repking, an energetic mother of three with a relaxed and candid delivery, opened by telling parents “I’m living this with you,” using anecdotes from her own experience to illustrate ways parents can stay ahead of Internet pitfalls.

Recently, she reported, she heard her husband telling their middle-school-aged daughter, who was online, to “get off now.” Apparently her daughter had engaged in a real-time conversation with another girl, purportedly eleven years old, who was pressing for information about Repking’s daughter’s location, soccer team and other details. Ms. Repking took a screen shot of the conversation and brought it to a detective, who read through the conversation and said of the other writer, “I can tell you, that is NOT an 11-year-old girl.”

Do not assume “my kid won’t make a decision to do that,” warned Repking; the truth is, kids don’t always “recognize a situation as it unfolds.” Giving a few advance guidelines and then assuming all is well, are simply not enough. A parent must teach self-esteem, good decision-making skills, and how to have good relationships – all affect a child’s ability to judge wisely online – and the best way to impart these skills is through regular, open communication. Through involvement in a child’s online life, and keeping an eye open for conversational opportunities, parents have a good shot at achieving the goal of “keeping my kids safe” – on the Internet, just as on public streets.

“I have lots of stories,” Repking confided, before offering another illustrative tale, in which a 15-year-old girl receives a friend request (via Facebook) from a boy her age, whose profile includes a great photo and a big credible list of friends – delivered in an engaging and winning manner. She responds, they talk, and she finds that he “really REALLY listens, and he really ‘GETS’ me!” Confident about her new acquaintance, she moves to texting, and at his request, sends him a photo. (Here Repking explained that it is a “cultural norm” in this age group to send questionable photos. In this case, the girl sends one of her breasts. Bad judgment? Perhaps, Repking said, but the scenario is not unusual.)

Soon the boy acknowledges he’s “not really 15, but 18.” That gives temporary pause, but with more messaging her concerns fade, and she agrees to meet him. But first, he says, “I’m not really 18, I’m 27.”

Repking told this story to a group of high school kids, and they were fine with every step – until the last one. Before the writer admitted to being 27, the kids agreed they too would text, send a photo, and agree to meet him, even if he was “really 18.” But . . . 27? A typical response was, “Oh that’s gross.”

There are three choices available here, said Repking: you meet him; you don’t meet him but risk his exposing the breasts photo; or you tell your parents. But what if parents have threatened to take the phone away if it is misused? Most kids didn’t want to tell parents. Some said they’d go meet the predator, but take a friend along. Repking said that was no solution – it just gives him “two for the price of one.” In most cases, she said, the kid does meet the predator.

What parents must do, advised Repking, is give their kids a way “to make a safe decision.” Her advice: tell your kids they have one chance (she likened it to a “get out of jail free” card): you screw up, you tell me – one time – and I’ll help you, without punishment. This operates much like the “call your parents when too drunk to drive” pact (“if you call, I’ll come and get you, I won’t expose you and I’ll ensure your safe return home – we can talk later”). The agreement helps your child make the safe decision. If she’s more scared of your reaction than she is of meeting the predator, she may not make that safer decision.

We educate children well about street safety – hammering the lessons home over many years, reviewing detailed scenarios with specifics (Don’t go near that white van! Don’t believe the lost puppy story!) but we hand over an iPhone with very little specific direction about the dangers it might bring, said Repking. We walk our kids everywhere for years, and after that, ask them to walk with a friend. Just as on the street the predator seeks the child who is alone, the Internet predator seeks the child whose information is “wide open” with no privacy walls. So don’t let your child be that one, advises Repking. Monitor your child’s activity. Establish privacy settings AS SOON AS YOU GIVE YOUR CHILD A PHONE. Let him see you do this, and explain why it’s done. She suggested parents find and learn to set up Google Safe Search, YouTube Safety Mode and My Mobile Watchdog.

Above all, communicate. Keep dialogue open. Talk about the technology and the what-ifs of having an online life. Kids may parrot the rules, but that doesn’t mean good judgment will kick in if a situation seems harmless to them. (Remember the 15-year-old girl who sent the inappropriate picture to the 27-year old “boy” who seemed so nice?) Repking advised telling kids to “hit the pause button” and ask themselves, “how would I feel if what I’m about to post were on the front page of the NY Times?” She stressed, “what goes up, stays up” and whatever you post “is your reputation.” And even worse, whatever you expose “is your future.” One college student who briefly posted a gun emoji and then took it down, soon found the police at his door and ended up getting kicked out of college. Tell your children about consequences, says Repking. Find illustrative news articles, and discuss them.

Chauncey Parker, Special Policy Advisor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, identified himself first by saying “I’m a Dad.” Offering background on what he’d learned working in criminal justice, he also made it clear he shared the concerns of every parent, and offered to share strategies he has found effective in keeping his own children safe. Echoing Repking, he stressed the high value of communication, as well as caution, and “making good choices.”

After giving a brief overview of the success New York City has enjoyed, moving from crime-ridden in the 1980’s to a much safer level now (in 1990 the murder figure was 500; in 2014, it was 37), Parker noted that “the Internet is the crime scene of the 21st century.” Offering a parallel, he told parents the goal of the criminal justice system has been to make the people of Manhattan as safe as possible but not use one more jail day than necessary to make that happen. Instrumental to the success of keeping this balance has been crime strategies units, which figure out where problems are, precinct by precinct, and develop strategies specifically to combat those problems. Similarly, the dangers the Internet poses to our children are best met with good strategizing.

So how do we keep our Internet-using kids safe? Parker offered three rules:
Passwords matter – never share passwords, with anyone.
Age matters – your child’s, and the age of the person he/she talks to.
Choices matter – kids need your help learning how to make good ones.

Parker gave a sobering example of the first rule: a high school student, who never got an email from the college he hoped to attend, inquired, and learned they’d already gotten a response from him saying “I’m not coming.” Distraught, the student discovered the college gave away the place they’d reserved for him. He had given his cousin his password. The cousin’s boyfriend sent the impersonating email, rejecting the college’s offer. The cousin may have been trustworthy, but the student’s account was still misused. If you never share a password, you never have to worry that it will be re-shared beyond your control.

The one exception Parker gave is that in an emergency, parents may need a son or daughter’s password. The justice system constantly strives to achieve a balance between security and liberty, said Parker, yet, he noted, the iPhone is designed to be impenetrable. If your child is in danger, you may be able to help police by supplying a password. Respect your child’s privacy, but try to keep his password in a secure place you will go to ONLY in an emergency.

The Internet can also be a “crime scene” when your own child is not the victim, but the perpetrator, wittingly or unwittingly. Your child should be taught that the list of Internet crimes includes: Criminal Impersonation (of which the cousin’s boyfriend was guilty); Aggravated Harassment (communicating a threat by computer or other electronic means); and Unlawful Dissemination (e.g., sending out video taken without victim’s knowledge and consent, and then posting, without consent). Just as your child must be taught not to let him or herself become a victim of these crimes, she or he must not commit these crimes.

This is why choices matter. Learning to make good choices is a big part of maturing. Using the Internet within the boundaries of common sense and in compliance with rules and terms of use opens up a wider world, safely. Going outside those boundaries is unsafe, whether one is victim or perpetrator. Parker says he tells his kids, if you drive and have an accident without a drop of alcohol in your blood, it is an accident. If you have any alcohol in your system, it may be a crime. Internet misuse, too, can cross the line into the criminal. Know where the lines are drawn, and make sure your kids know too.

Parker said, “The Internet is amazing,” yet acknowledged its potential to have lasting negative effect on one’s future if not used properly. A good parental strategy for Internet crime prevention that will protect children is to “be cautious, not fearful.” Parker reminded parents to recall the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.” The Internet, said Parker, makes it so – the world is, in a sense, watching.

His parting advice was a reminder, once again, to teach your children how to “make good choices.”





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