You can order a pizza without picking up the phone, get directions without pulling out a map, and find your long-lost childhood sweetheart with a search engine. We can look up information on pretty much anything with a few keystrokes. People with rare interests or problems can find like-minded peers around the world, and people in different countries can play an online game together, chatting all the while.
Most people online are seeking information, sharing it with friends, or buying something. However, there have always been untrustworthy people who try to target us in person; now they are online as well.
A number of developmental attributes make adolescents a prime target for predators: impulsivity, taking things at face value, and narcissism, to name a few. A recent article in Rolling Stone recounted how a lonely, bullied 14-year-old girl created an alternate ego named “Kiki Kannibal” on Myspace. She got herself enough attention from new fans to start her own small business selling paraphernelia. She also got enough attention from exploitative adults to make her life a living hell.
Here are my 5 cardinal rules for adolescents to keep themselves safe on the internet… and 1 cardinal rule for parents and guardians.
Rules for Adolescents:
1. Unless you have met someone face to face, you have to assume that they are not necessarily who they say they are. If a chat starts getting personal- or romantic- remember that there might be an older adult criminal typing away behind a cute teen facade.
2. Never give anyone your home address, home phone number, birth date, school, social security number, or any identifying information online- or post it where the public can see it. Not only could someone creepy find you in person, but someone could try to steal your identity.
3. Find out how to restrict the people who can see your information on social networking sites, so it is only people you choose who can see your pictures, updates, etc.
4. If you’re talking online to someone you don’t know in person, and they ask you not to tell your parents about something, stop talking to them and tell a parent or guardian, or a trusted adult.
5. If you’re following all these rules, but you get the feeling something is iffy, trust your gut. Defriend the person, stop chatting with them, block them- whatever gets you out of the situation.
Rules for Parents:
1. “Friend” your kid on Facebook.
Okay, it’s a little more complicated than that… but basically, if your teen is putting out information on the internet, you should have access to it. If they have a Myspace page, you should be able to view it. If they have a Facebook account, “friending” you should be a part of having that privilege. (I don’t know enough about Google+ yet to make recommendations on that one!) If they don’t want you to comment online on their page, that’s fine. It doesn’t stop you from saying something to them in person.
Even if you are watching your kid’s Facebook page like a hawk, it’s still possible they might communicate with someone dangerous. Make sure you go over rules and expectations with them. Get their input on what’s safe and what’s not, and how to avoid the unsafe situations.
Figure out what steps need to be taken if they want to meet an online friend in person. Speaking to their parents, meeting them when your teen does, and having initial activities supervised by an adult are a good place to start.