Cyber Safety Tips for Back to School

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Surveillance camera peering into laptop computer

Sing it with me, parents: It’s the most wonderful time of the year ...

But like all holidays, Back To School has its dark side, and not just the fact that you now have to forklift your children out of bed at dawn.  

You've got to do a reset on your family’s cyber safety rules. Your child is now one year older, and what worked last year may not be enough this year. New media tools such as cell phones, Facebook and SMS (short message system) texting present you with an new parenting challenge that goes well beyond the 90's concern about online porn and hate speech. Particularly true as your child edges into the middle school and then high school years. It’s not just about what predators and bad actors can do to them. It’s also what they can do to each other.

During the summer, you have much more direct control over your child’s life - online and off. Sure, you always have to be vigilant, but in a middle-class household, the computer your child is using to go online is probably the family PC, hopefully located in your family room where you can supervise its use. If your kid is the one that tends to get picked on by the classroom bullies, you send him to a different summer program than the mean kids. And so on.

When school starts, however, you don’t have the same visibility into your child’s daily life. Starting in the upper elementary grades, most US schools offer some form of technology class during which the kids have access to computers. If your child plays at friends’ homes after school, you are at the mercy of another parent’s cyber safety savvy.

In this post, I’m going to offer a few suggestions of things you can do to keep your child cyber safe and happy in the coming year.

Online Use In General

Before the social media explosion, the two biggest issues with online use were content and time. What are my children seeing, and how long are they online (when they should be doing their homework)? These are still part of your cyber safety mix, although they have most definitely been overshadowed by the new problems presented by Facebook and malware laden websites.

Most US public schools use some sort of security software. Some by choice, others due to  legislation passed in 2001 that required them to have an Internet safety policy that includes technology protection measures in order to secure e-rate funding. As a parent, you have every right to ask your school what it does to secure students’ online privacy and safety.

At home, whether you decide to use parental control software or not, you must have the cyber safety talk with your children. I’m not the first person to make this comparison, but it’s apt -- the cyber safety talk is the new sex talk. And it’s nearly as hard, and you have to do it even earlier.

Some important ground rules:

  • Internet use in the home is a privilege, not a right.
  • Keep the computer your kids use in a family space.
  • Passwords are private and so is your personal information. Don’t tell either to anyone online. Your real-life friends already know where you live, and your online friends don’t need to know.
  • If you choose to use parental control software, explain why to your kids, and involve them in the limit setting.

There are more great information and resources at ConnectSafely, and if you’re in the market for software, check out PC Magazine’s annual review of parental control software

ConnectSafely also has a great tip sheet for strong, secure passwords.  I’d add one more piece of advice -- if you are helping your kid get set up on social networks or websites, don’t use YOUR passwords for them. I worked in the online security industry for 10 years, and should have known better, but I did this when I helped my son set up the 39 Clues website. I used the same password I now used to use on PayPal. Yup, you guessed it. He used my computer one day to log onto Facebook (with my permission), decided to buy himself some Facebook credits and successfully guessed my password to purchase via PayPal (not with my permission).

It was not a good day. Learn from my mistake.

IMPORTANT: Even if you don’t use parental control software, you must install a good anti-virus and anti-malware package on your family computers. Do not simply rely on your email software or operating system to protect you.

Facebook

Facebook adds a whole new dimension to the cyber safety challenge because it identifies users by their real names. Strictly speaking, children under 13 should not be on Facebook, but in practice, kids are going on, with parental permission, as young as 10. We’ve set a few ground rules in our house:

  • Mom and Dad have to be your friends. This was not a problem -- I was the first person he friended when he set up the account at the beginning of the summer. I'm no fool mind you; it was because he wanted me to send him gifts in the silly games but whatever works is my credo.
  • You cannot accept friend requests from people we do not know in real life.
  • If I ask, you have to let me see your direct messages.

My son mostly uses Facebook to play games and chat with family members, so I haven’t had to worry too much about the friend suggestions. He also still uses his parents as the collective memory for his passwords, so I could log on to his Facebook account if I wished. I’m going to try to avoid that as I am a staunch believer in an individual’s right to privacy. However, I freely admit that I may change my mind on this score once school starts, and we have to deal with the increase in friends, some of whom may not be such good ones.

If you are concerned for any reason about what might be going on in your child’s online world, you should reach an agreement about your access to his or her accounts up front.

Connect Safely has great up-to-date resources on Facebook for kids. Be sure to check out their info on Facebook’s privacy settings. I’ve locked down my son’s settings to the most restrictive.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) also has online safety sites for parents, kids and teens. The sites include teaching/coaching materials for parents and teachers, and games and videos for kids.

Cyber Bullying

This is probably the issue that worries parents the most. In light of the suicide last winter of Massachusetts teen Phoebe Prince, it’s also going to be foremost in the minds of school administrators when the school doors open, whether it’s this month or next that your kids are boarding the bus.

Cyber bullying has its roots in the same mob mentality that regular old bullying does, except it’s not visible to the naked eye -- only to the victims and the perpetrators know that it's going on. That’s what makes it so insidious.

As parents, we need to do two very important things. First, find out what your school is doing to educate children, prevent bullying of any kind and step in when abuses are suspected. Second, talk to your kids about bullying and make sure they are comfortable reporting incidents to you or their teachers. It’s not tattling. Reporting bad behavior, whether you are the victim or simply an observer, is not breaking some unspoken code of the playground, cyber or otherwise. 

In the UK, Facebook will have a “panic button” to report abuse. According to an article in Mashable, the button will connect the teens to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center (the UK equivalent of the NCMEC) . No indication to date that a similar button will be added in the US, and I’m not sure it really will be that useful if all it does is connect kids to a site with tips and so on. Honestly, I think it’s more important that they tell you.

The Pacer Center has made bullying a focus, a logical extension of its work for children with disabilities, so often the target of bullies, and has set up two anti-bullyiing sites, one for kids and one for teens.  It has also developed a curriculum that will include the anti-bullying song by Massachusetts teen Hayley Reardon when it is distributed to more than 500 schools this fall. 

Cell phones

If your child has a cell phone that you pay for, I recommend just having the basic telephone service -- no Internet, no texting. If they want the added features, they should have to earn them. You can set whatever guidelines you want -- good grades, household chores or an actual after school job to earn the funds, but make it a privilege that they earn. You give them a phone for safety purposes. The other stuff is extra.   

The phone should be off during school hours. This is probably a school rule anyway.

Sexting

It is illegal to transmit nude pictures of minors electronically. It’s considered child pornography. This is true even if a minor does it. Make sure your kids understand this. They shouldn’t do it, under any circumstances. If they get such a picture, they should NOT send it on to someone else, not even you. Instead, they should show it to you so you can help them deal with it. 

If your kid does get a sexting picture from a friend, start by discussing it with the other teen’s parents first. Reporting it to the police could get both kids in trouble, depending on how your jurisdiction is enforcing the child pornography laws. More tips at Connect Safely.

What if you homeschool?

My son is in the public school system, so I can’t personally speak to how cyber safety issues impact the homeschooling family. I’m guessing that homeschooling parents face many of the same problems parents of public and private school students do. They don’t have to worry about what happens at school, but we all have to worry about what happens at home to our kids who are so at home online.  

What are you doing in your household to handle cyber safety in the age of sexting and Facebook? Let us know in the comments.

Susan Getgood blogs at Marketing Roadmaps, Snapshot Chronicles and Snapshot Chronicles Roadtrip. She is the author of Professional Blogging For Dummies (Wiley, July 2010).

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