Is my child at risk online?

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The Internet and technology are quickly becoming the number one methods of social contact for children, teens and adults in the American Society. The feeling of anonymity online, along with the relative ease of expanding a social network beyond normal geographical boundaries, give online social networking an inarguable appeal. People that would not normally involve themselves in social scenes can get online and become involved without feeling like they are risking themselves emotionally. As it turns out this is not necessarily true. When a person begins to develop relationships online they are doing just that; they are developing a relationship, and as with any relationship there are risks involved. Children and teenagers because of lack of emotional experience and maturity are especially susceptible to this type of “surprise” emotional involvement. This vulnerability makes children and teenagers more easily manipulated and drawn into risky behavior online and in rl (real-life).

As a parent you may wonder, “how do I know if my child is at risk online?” The answer is simple. If they have access to the Internet they are at risk. Parents should not wait for “signs” to begin monitoring their child’s activity online; they should begin monitoring before they child knows how to turn on the computer. Start early and speak with you child about the dangers of the Internet, and how to avoid risky situations. Contact the school or your local police department to obtain information on how to prepare yourself and your child to go online. Try to familiarize yourself with the popular social networking sites (currently Facebook, Myspace etc.), IM (Instant Messenger) Clients (AOL, Yahoo, MSN), and blog (weblog) sites (Twitter). The more prepared you are before hand the more likely your child will know when to remove themselves from risky online activities. No matter how prepared you are, however, there is still a change your child will put themselves at risk. There are some signs to watch for to help you recognize if it happens to your child.

1)Sudden or abnormal desire for privacy while online. If a child is unconcerned about privacy, and then suddenly changes behavior it may be cause for concern. Speak to the child about the change in behavior, and ask very specific questions. “What do you do online?”, “Who do you talk you?”, “What are your friends names?”, “How old are your online friends?”, and “Where do your online friends live?” are just a few examples of important questions to ask. Depending on the outcome of the conversation you may choose to install a parental control program on the computer the child uses to monitor the activity if one is not already installed.

2)Friends or contacts outside normal social groups. It is a good idea to continually monitor your child’s online contacts. If those contacts begin to include people outside the normal social group of your child it may warrant investigation. The contact list may also warrant investigation if suddenly long time friends and contacts are no longer included in online contact lists. The same rule taught to children on playgrounds for generations holds true online; A child who is isolated is a much easier target for abuse or manipulation than a child in a group.

3)Sudden rise or high volumes in cell phone, data and text message usage. A sudden interest in a little used or ignored digital medium should be closely monitored. Text messaging has quickly become a favored method of communication between children of all ages. It’s easy, its convenient, and nearly anonymous so once again it becomes easier to become involved in social relationships that would not be available if the communication medium was not available. The challenge with text messaging is that the messages are easily deleted and there is currently not workable monitoring system for cellular phone traffic. Educating your child against the risk of text messaging and sending media over cellular phones and closely monitoring message usage on bills is the best way to monitor texting.

4)Withdraw from normal social activities. If a child withdraws from family activities, social activities apart from online, or looses interest inactivities that are not online be aware. It may be no more than a normal stage of adolescent development, but there could be more to it. Talk to you child, talk to his or her friends, and teachers. Try to determine if anything has happened recently to warrant the change in behavior. Teenagers may not be the easiest to talk to, but they are smart enough to know if a friend is in trouble. Ask them, and they may be more help than you think.

There is no totally comprehensive guide of signs that your child is at risk online. That is because no one can know your child as well as you do. You are your own guide, and must trust your instincts. At times it may feel like an invasion of privacy, and at other times it may feel like you are just being mean. You will have to contend with the fact that other parents may not have the same rules and may not be as strict as you. It will not be an easy thing to do, but if you want your child to be safe online it is the only thing to do.

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