Keeping Kids Safe Online

What you need to know to keep predators locked out in a digital world.
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It happened in a local after-school program. A couple of girls found a website where they could build their own fictional world and fuzzy little characters while earning points. It seemed innocent enough, but one of the girls felt uneasy about the game, so she spoke with a teacher.

“One of the students came to me and said some girls in the after-school program had been talking to someone online and it wasn’t appropriate,” says Mrs. D. (name withheld for privacy), a technology teacher at the local elementary school. “I checked out the website and while I saw that it wasn’t educational, I didn’t see anything that seemed inappropriate.”

As the teacher dug further, she discovered that the website was open play, meaning players can converse via their fuzzy creatures with other people playing the game online. She soon realized that some of the conversations that had taken place were not only inappropriate, but because of some of the language used, she believed the girls were talking with an adult.

After doing a Google search of pedophile and the website name, she discovered an article about the site’s parent company and that pedophiles were noted to lurk on the website.

“In my class, we do a six-week lesson on digital citizenship. We talk about how they should never have a conversation with someone they don’t know in real life. We talk about the differences between being a friend in person versus the online world. We drill that into their heads,” Mrs. D. says.

Yet, even with those efforts and the fact that the school district enforces strict regulations and access on devices, a threat remained. The teacher blocked the site before the conversations could go any further, however, that’s not always the case when it comes to keeping kids safe online.

Real-Life Threats

“The threat is very real,” says special agent Karen Walsh who has been with the FBI for 20 years. “Parents should be concerned about anyone who is interacting with their children online, including on social media, video games, text and apps. Parents need only conduct a targeted internet search to find stories of what happened to other children online to realize how serious this issue is.”

Through Walsh’s work for the FBI, she leads workshops for parents, offering suggestions on how to protect kids from online threats. She applies her rules to the kids in her life.

“Parents may want to consider introducing a phone to their kids as a ‘doorway’ to the outside world,” Walsh says. “We don’t open our front door to strangers; we shouldn’t open our phones or any device that accesses the internet to them, either. This includes anything the phone can do: text, call, apps, games, etc.”

Walsh understands that kids may complain about so many rules and think their parents don’t trust them, but she has a response at the ready.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” she tells the kids in her life. “If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t have a phone. It’s that I don’t trust all the bad guys who are trying to trick you into doing something you will regret.”  

To help guard families against those bad guys and to protect kids from making poor choices on their digital devices, Walsh encourages families to implement the following rules.

Maintain open dialogue. Before handing over a device, talk about rules and consequences, but don’t end the discussion there. Parents should engage their kids in ongoing conversations about screen usage.

“Parents must actively participate in their kids’ online presence. Keep communication open about what a healthy relationship is and what it looks like on a phone,” Walsh says. “Give kids permission — and maybe serve as an excuse — to block anyone who is not being nice. Make sure kids understand what ‘sexting’ is and how it can turn dangerous and negatively affect them down the road.”

Limit friends. “Contacts, friends and followers are only people we have met in real life. If we haven’t been introduced, they’re out,” Walsh says. “Kids often take interactions at face value, not realizing that the 14-year-old cheerleader to whom they are about to send a photo is actually an adult with harmful intentions. Predators can be very convincing and demanding.”

No devices in bedrooms and bathrooms. Let’s be honest, naked pictures don’t take place in the kitchen. In other words, keep devices out of private spaces where kids run a higher risk of making poor decisions thanks to a false sense of security.

Inspections happen. Conduct monthly inspections of all devices and apps, as well as random, on-the spot inspections that don’t allow kids the opportunity to delete or hide content.

Charge devices overnight in a shared space. Designate a charging station in a common space of the house, such as the kitchen. This removes the temptation of late-night social media and gaming when children should be getting rest. It also allows for parents to conduct on-the-spot inspections.

Limit apps. An endless amount of apps exist and parents can’t be savvy about each one. For the kids in Walsh’s family, each device has only two gaming or social media type apps at a time. If a child wants to download a new one, they must remove one. Only download that new app when you have had the opportunity to review and understand how it works.

Turn off geotagging. Geotagging adds geographical identification to photos, videos, websites and SMS messages, which means with little effort, someone can use social surveillance to pinpoint your location. Protect your child’s whereabouts by turning off this standard feature.

Communication must pass the “living-room test.” “That means any communication they have through their device should be acceptable to be said out loud in the living room,” Walsh says. If you find something inappropriate, ask your child to review the conversation and ask them if that is something that would pass the living-room test.

Monitor phones. Various apps and devices exist, offering parents varying degrees of control and monitoring. Check the sidebar for a sampling of tools that can help you safeguard your child’s device.

Put devices to bed early. Consider putting devices away at least an hour before bedtime. An article posted in December 2017 by Harvard Health Publishing, states that blue lights, such as those produced by screens, can lead to disruptive sleep and health risks.

Friends leave their devices in a basket by the front door. “This eliminates that grey area whereby one child’s rules are in conflict with others’,” Walsh says. “Additionally, if you are coming over to play with our kids, then you shouldn’t need a phone once you have arrived safely.”

As Mrs. D points out, “Kids and technology don’t mix.” She realizes that may sound odd for a technology teacher to say, but as she explains, “What I teach isn’t what’s getting them into trouble. It’s what they are learning on their own through social apps that is the danger.”

“Parents need to be more informed,” she says. “Technology develops faster than anyone can keep up with, but if we are going to give our kids access to these devices, we have to stay informed.”

Even cute, fuzzy little creatures can have a predator lurking behind them, and we certainly don’t want to leave our front door wide open to that sort of threat.

Meagan Church is a writer, children’s book author and the brainpower behind that explores the story of modern motherhood. She lives in Charlotte, is married to her high school sweetheart, and has three children and a plethora of pets.