Online Safety for Kids

While the internet provides useful and often entertaining information for kids, the risks associated with kids online can be painfully staggering. In some instances, children may stumble upon inappropriate images or fall victim to other online users -- including both adults and children -- who are seeking to use, exploit, or intimidate them. Parents and educators should therefore take the utmost precaution to help keep kids safe online.

Below are warning signs and other areas to look out for to help keep kids safe online, which should be part of a larger conversation about keeping them safe in general.

Online Safety and Cyberbullying

The term "cyberbullying" refers to the use of online media (especially social networking sites) to tease, harass, embarrass, intimidate, or humiliate kids online. Cyberbullying has become a significant concern among parents and educators, especially in light of high-profile cases involving cyberbullying-related deaths. As such, nearly all states have passed laws criminalizing some forms of cyberbullying. Some of these laws also hold parents criminally and/or civilly liable for their children's cyberbullying.

State laws generally address the following factors with respect to cyberbullying:

  • Identifies cyberbullying or online harassment as a form of bullying.
  • Includes criminal sanctions for cyberbullying or online harassment.
  • Includes school sanctions for cyberbullying.
  • Requires schools to have a cyberbullying policy in place.
  • School sanctions include off-campus instances of cyberbullying.

For example, David's Law in Texas (named for a young man who committed suicide after being the victim of cyberbullying) applies to acts committed both on and off the school campus. The law requires schools to enact cyberbullying policies that, among other provisions, include procedures for giving notice to parents of the alleged victim and the alleged bully; elaborates counseling options for students involved in cyberbullying; and establishes a process for anonymously reporting acts of cyberbullying.

Chatting Online

There are numerous place online where people can communicate in real-time, whether they're "chat rooms" or instant messaging applications. Messaging applications, which are quite popular with teenagers, can be especially risky for adolescent kids who may be feeling the need to break away from a parent's control. In fact, many of these applications are especially designed to "hide" the messages after a certain period of time, such as SnapChat (a multimedia messaging app where messages "disappear" after a certain amount of time).

One of the greatest dangers to kids online safety include the presence of sexual predators. They often linger in chat rooms, games, apps, or other online communication platforms under the disguise of an innocent child or friend, hoping to find some unsuspecting individual to communicate with and potentially lure to some undisclosed location. It's a good idea for parents and educators to teach kids about the importance of not communicating with strangers on these platforms and to recognize the danger signs.

Warning Signs That Your Child May Be at Risk Online

Everyone's situation may be a little different, but below is a list of warning signs that may indicate your child's safety is at risk online.

  • Your child spends a large amount of time online.
  • You find pornographic images on your child's computer.
  • You receive phone calls from people you don't know or whose number you don't recognize.
  • Your child receives unsolicited mail or gifts from people you don't know.
  • Your child quickly turns off the monitor to conceal what they were viewing when you walk by.
  • Your child withdraws from family activities.
  • Your child uses an online account belonging to someone else.

What You Can Do to Keep Your Child Safe Online

There are some important measures you can take to protect the safety of your kids online, starting with communicating with your child and discussing the potential for online dangers. Just as you would teach your child about the safety of using a helmet when riding a bike, you also should teach them the dangers of talking with strangers online. Such safety measures include (but aren't limited to) the following:

  • Never agree to meet with a stranger in person.
  • Never give out personal identifying information (full name, birthdate, address, phone numbers, email addresses, etc.).
  • Never download pictures or other files from an unknown source (or share pictures or other files with an unknown person).

Make sure to spend time with your child online and know what they're actually searching for. Acceptable uses of computer time may include researching information for school projects, downloading music, or communicating with friends. It may help to move the computer out of a child's bedroom and place it in a common area, since it's much easier to spot signs of online danger when the computer screen is visible and in the open.

You also may want to considering using software blocking controls or other parental controls offered by your internet service provider. Also, consider randomly checking your child's email account or text messages, not necessarily to "spy" on your child's conversations, but to identify potential signs of child predator acts.

Concerned About Your Kids' Online Safety? An Attorney Can Help

Children's lives are increasingly spent online, whether it's texting with friends or playing video games, but it can be difficult to understand the hazards they may be encountering. If you believe your child's online safety is at risk, or wish to learn about specific laws that apply in your jurisdiction, it may be best to contact a local family law attorney.

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