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Spinning A Safety Net For The World Wide Web

When you think of your children's safety, you most likely relate it to holding their hands when crossing the street, telling them not to get into cars with strangers, or advising your teens to stay away from drinking and drugs. Using a computer might not be the first thing that comes to mind. These days, safety concerns extend beyond our physical world and into the World Wide Web, a place where children and adolescents are spending more and more time exploring, playing, and socializing; a place where a computer screen does not act as a shield against things or people who could harm them. Parents and children should understand the risks associated with the Internet and other interactive and digital technologies, that include privacy violations, inappropriate content and unsafe sites, cyberbullying, and online solicitation. Jennifer Thomson, MD, a board certified Pediatrician at Pleasant Street Pediatrics, offers the following advice for parents and their children.

Privacy Violations

In terms of privacy, being online is equivalent to being in public, even if it happens at home. Personal information can be shared easily online, especially when children create "member profiles" with Internet service providers, on websites, or in chat rooms. To protect your privacy, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children "never give out personal information unless a parent says it's okay. This includes your name, address, phone number, age, race, school name or location, or friends' names." The AAP also advises against sharing passwords, even with friends.

Inappropriate Content And Unsafe Sites

While surfing the Web, your children may come across information, music, or images that might disturb or upset them, including pornography or sites that promote anorexia, bulimia, racism, violence, or gambling. You may consider installing tracking software to keep track of websites your children have visited, as well as software or services that block or filter offensive websites and online material. Because many computer-savvy children can find ways around these restrictions, supervising them and monitoring their computer use is the best way to protect them. Supervision can be facilitated, according to the AAP, by keeping computers that your children use in public areas; computers should never be placed in a room where a door can be closed or a parent excluded.

Cyberbullying

In cyberspace, which is the realm of electronic communication, people can connect with other people by means of chat rooms, blogs or online journals, e-mail, instant messaging, and social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Your children may be using these methods of online social networking to interact with their schoolmates and friends. Just as bullying can happen face-to-face in school, it can happen in cyberspace. Called "cyberbullying," this occurs when a child or adolescent is harassed, humiliated, tormented, threatened, embarrassed, or otherwise targeted by a peer using the Internet or other digital technologies. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, "Cyberbullying is a problem that affects almost half of all American teens." It has become so prevalent that on May 3, 2010, an anti-bullying bill was signed into law in Massachusetts that includes tough restrictions on young people's use of any technology to bully another person. Your children should be advised to never send malicious messages online, and never say something online that they would not say in public, which emphasizes the harm in bullying both in person and online. They should also talk to a parent or trusted adult if they feel uncomfortable or frightened by others online.

Online Solicitation

While the Internet can be used to facilitate socialization, it can open up doorways to unsafe communication. Your children might be socializing with strangers in addition to their friends, and in doing so, they might unknowingly communicate with child predators, who use the Internet to befriend and persuade vulnerable children into meeting in person by pretending to be another child or a trustworthy adult. To prevent your children from being lured by a child predator, make sure they understand the following recommendations from the AAP:

  • Never meet a friend you only know online, in person, unless a parent says it's okay. It's best if a parent goes along and to meet in a public place.
  • Never respond to messages that make you feel uncomfortable. Ignore these messages, stop all communication, and tell a parent or another adult you trust right away.

For more information about cyber safety, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) website at safetynet.aap.org. Looking for a pediatrician? Click here to see a listing of pediatricians on staff at Sturdy Memorial Hospital, or call our FREE Physician Referral Line at 508-236-8500.