Twenty years ago I wrote a booklet called Child Safety on the Information Highway for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and I just posted a complete re-write. I know, the title is really dated, but the content is all new. When I wrote the booklet, people really did use the term "information highway."
NCMEC distributed millions of copies of the original booklet and it soon became the basis for much of Internet safety advice during the 1990s and this decade too. The FBI and other agencies and organizations around the world excerpted the document and it was reposted on countless websites including my own site, SafeKids.com. Over the years I've revised the booklet a bit until NCMEC retired it in 2005. But until now it was woefully out of date.
When reviewing traffic statistics for SafeKids.com I realized that it's still one of the site's most popular pages so, since people are still clicking on it, I decided it was time for a re-write.
The guide had good advice for the early to mid-'90s, but the Net has changed dramatically since the booklet was first written. Advice such as "keep the computer in a family room rather than the child's bedroom" seems almost quaint in the age of mobile devices (though it's still a good idea to recharge your devices away from the bedroom at night). The guide also suggested that kids should avoid posting pictures or disclosing the name of their school but -- in today's social media world -- that advice, too, is a bit unrealistic.
The other thing that's changed is that we now have 20 years more experience and a lot of great research from organizations like the Crimes Against Children Research Center, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Center for Innovative Public Health Research Center and the Cyberbullying Research Center. With this research, we now have a much better understanding of risks as well as how young people use the Internet and how most young people are more savvy than many adults give them credit for.
Thanks to the research advisory board of the Internet Safety Technical Force, for example, we now know that "The psychosocial makeup of and family dynamics surrounding particular minors are better predictors of risk than the use of specific media or technologies." The Crimes Against Children Research Center taught us that "publicity about online 'predators' who prey on naive children using trickery and violence is largely inaccurate," and there has been a great deal of research to show that cyberbullying -- while a serious problem -- is far from an epidemic. And recent studies have shown that the panic over "sexting" is way overblown.
Still, parents are rightfully concerned about the well-being of their children as they use connected computers, phones, tablets, game consoles and even Wi-Fi enabled media players like the iPod Touch. And while the net may not be as dangerous as some people thought back in 1993, there are still things we need to think about to help kids protect not just their safety but their privacy and their peace of mind.
The new guide has links to tips and advice from ConnectSafely.org, the non-profit organization that I co-direct along with Anne Collier.
Like the first edition, the guide covers issues parents worry about including:
- Harassment and bullying
- Posting material that could harm your reputation
- Security risks
- Legal and financial risks
- Exposure to inappropriate material
- Online predators and physical molestation
- And the guidelines for parents section includes such points as:
Have a conversation (not a lecture) with your children about how they are using connected technology. Ask them what services and apps they use and get them to show you how they use them. Don't overreact. If you become concerned or if something goes wrong, work with your children to solve the problem and don't punish them or take away their access for coming to you with a problem.
Get to know any services or apps your child uses. If you don't know how to use the service, get your child to show you. Have your child show you what he or she does online and become familiar the services.
Be aware of the information that sites and apps collect. It could include your child's location (especially mobile apps) or list of friends and contacts. Some apps let you limit what they collect so pay close attention to the "permissions" they request when you install them.
And NCMEC continues to publish great (and up-to-date) Internet safety resources including its NetSmartz Workshop with great advice for parents, eduators, law enforcement as well videos, games and advice for kids, tweens and teens.
Disclosure: I serve on NCMEC's board of directors without compensation but don't speak on behalf of the organization.