You can't turn off all electronic devices for good, but there is plenty that parents can do to keep kids safe online.
By Linda DiProperzio
According to Pattie Fitzgerald, founder of Safely Ever After, Inc., cyberbullying is using computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices for the purpose of harassing, threatening, embarrassing, or taunting another person. It can be done through emails, text messages, postings on blogs or chat rooms, social networking sites, and sending photos or images online with the intention of physically or emotionally hurting another person.
In a poll by Care.com, cyberbullying has eclipsed kidnapping as the greatest fear parents have regarding their children's safety. As a result, 75 percent of parents are now monitoring their children's text messages and social media activity. "Mean kids and bullies are not new, but the access to social media networks and cell phones that can make bullying both anonymous and seemingly innocuous is the new danger. And parents are genuinely afraid," says Wendy Sachs, editor-in-chief of Care.com. "Our study found that parents are stepping up and want their schools and communities involved."
Websites for Online Learning
Experts agree that before you rely on parental controls and mobile apps to monitor your child online, start a dialogue and sit down with your child in front of the computer. "You need to get familiar with Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, and be aware of all of the cyberbullying policies on each of these sites," says Ryan Moreau, an Internet safety expert with Kiwi Commons.
"You can't protect your child if you don't see or understand the problem," says Fitzgerald. She recommends several sites run by Parry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security lawyer. WiredSafety.org offers online classes (for parents, children, teachers and school administrators, and law enforcement) about the risks children face and how to minimize them. Or learn about the four types of online bullies at NetBullies.com, which also offers a checklist for determining when your child needs help.
In addition, the Cyberbullying Research Center features ten tips parents can follow for prevention. Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, recommends NetSmartz.org and StopBullying.gov (launched by the White House) to get parents more involved with the issue at school and in the community. Last year, PBS developed a special program with an online game, Webonauts Internet Academy, that families play together to learn about online safety.
To teach preschool children about online dangers Little Bird's Internet Security Adventure, a free downloadable e-book that's also available on the Kindle and the iPad, was written by AVG Technologies. At the Family Online Safety Institute, a Safety Contract that spells out online rules and expectations is even available for families to print and sign together.
Internet Controls to Invest In
One tip all online safety experts also suggest: Google your child's name periodically to see what comes up. "This is how one family learned there was dangerous information about their child online, which no one knew about,"' says Fitzgerald.
"No matter how young a child is, he or she is going to have some access to the Internet," Moreau points out. A survey released in June 2011 from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and the Sesame Workshop found that nearly 80 percent of children age 5 and under use the Internet on a weekly basis, and very young children are increasingly consuming all types of digital media and more than one type at a time. Another survey by AVG.com found that the average American child spends four hours online each week, slightly more than the worldwide average of 3½ hours per week.
Setting up security software, then, is an essential part of keeping your child safe from online dangers. Net Nanny ($39.99) can block pornography, hate sites, online gambling sites, and questionable chat rooms. You can set it up so that kids install and play computer games only with parental ratings that you deem appropriate. It will also examine the content of Instant Messages (IM) and allow you to limit the length and time periods your kids spend on the Internet. Safe Eyes ($49.95) is similar to Net Nanny, with the added ability to block specific content on YouTube and iTunes. You can see both sides of an IM chat, keep track of your child's email contacts, and record when sensitive information is posted on social networking sites.
Tracking Your Child's Texting Habits
The average age of a child with a cell phone or smart phone is 10½. "And since that is the national average, kids even younger than that are using cell phones," says Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. Texting is a big part of cyberbullying because messages and photos can be sent and received quickly by anyone at anytime.
One way to manage your child's texting is through parental controls offered by wireless phone carriers. Both Verizon Wireless ($4.99 per month) and AT&T ($4.99 per month) allow parents to set time limits on texting (the number of texts sent each day and the times they can be sent), and to block certain numbers and locate your child on demand. "AT&T's Smart Limits has become the gold standard for all mobile carriers," explains Balkam. "So no matter what wireless company you use, you should be able to find parental control options to download."'
Social Networking Sites Just for Kids
InternetSafety101.org reveals that 72 percent of adolescents have a social networking profile. Consumer Reports found that 5 million kids under the age of 10 have a Facebook page (though the site's rules discourage anyone under the age of 13 from creating an account) and one million kids under 18 have been bullied on Facebook. "If your child is on Facebook or any other social networking site, you should be on it too," Patchin advises.
It's helpful to know how to report any abuse taking place on these sites. Facebook allows you to report not only security abuse but also sensitive issues such as inappropriate or objectionable actions. MySpace has ParentCare, where you can lock the age on your teen's profile or delete it entirely. Meanwhile Formspring.com, which allows users to post anonymously, lets you report inappropriate behavior.
"There are a number of sites sprouting up that are more appropriate for younger kids," says Patchin. Togetherville.com allows kids under 10 to play games, create artwork, watch videos, and post messages. Although the page is created through your Facebook page (your child's contact list is made up of friends that you select), your child never enters the actual Facebook site.
At WhatsWhat.me (ages 7-13), kids must use a webcam to submit headshots that will verify their identity through facial recognition software. Kids can't make friends with anyone outside of their age group without a parent's permission. On ScuttlePad.com (ages 6-11), kids can't register without parent approval. Plus, all comments need to follow a specific format -- only first names -- and all photos are manually approved by the site.
GiantHello.com works a bit better for older kids (ages 7 to 13) because it closely resembles Facebook's functionality. There's a profile page for comments, status updates, and recent activity (like joining groups). Over at PenPalKidsClub.com, an edutainment website, kids can interact with others around the world; it's monitored 24/7 and emphasizes learning, not just message and photo exchanges.
Web Browsers Just for Kids
Kidzui.com has collected millions of kid-friendly YouTube videos and online games and will send a report on your child's interests while BuddyBrowser.com features page blocking, time limits, safe buddy chats, TV and video viewing -- and no pop-up ads!
Controls for toddlers, preschoolers, kindergartners (ages 2 to 6), and grade-school kids (ages 7 to 12) are available at Hoopah.com through a product called Kidview. The software allows you to get rid of pop-up ads and right-click options so kids can't easily access, run, delete, or change any features while the program is running. Children can go only to sites you have chosen and you can set up a safe email account for them. With the usual security features, parents can also customize content for children at KidOz.net.
Even McGruff, the famous crime dog, allows parents to create and customize multiple accounts for kids of different ages.
Books to Understand Cyberbullying
"There are now more resources to help parents and kids identify cyberbullies, gain practical advice about legal rights, and...help the bullied child work through the emotional ramifications," shares Seira Wilson, an editor at Amazon.com. Some of her suggestions include:
The Bully Action Guide by Edward F. Dragan Ed.D. - The final chapter is devoted to cyberbullying, covering legal guidelines (though these vary by state), and practical tips and instructions for using filters available on major email providers (e.g., Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail).
The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso - First published nearly a decade ago, this book established itself as a primary resource for parents and educators. Updated in 2009 with a section on cyberbullying, it identifies bullying behavior to be aware of and offers suggestions for protecting and repairing a bullied child's self-esteem.
Letters to a Bullied Girl by Olivia Gardner, Emily Buder, and Sarah Buder - In response to the plight of Olivia Gardner, whose case of cyberbullying gained national attention in 2007, two teenage girls initiated a letter-writing campaign. The result is a book that offers words of support and advice to young people who are victims of bullying.
Teen Cyberbullying Investigated by Thomas A. Jacobs - Written by a former judge, this book covers 50 court cases and looks at each from the perspective of both offender and victim. Each chapter ends with questions for the child to consider, a valuable resource for family discussions.
My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig - The award-winning author set the standard for books dealing with difficult social issues in children. This story, aimed at younger kids, introduces a situation where a friend engages in emotional bullying and the bullied child must learn to cope with her fear of social isolation and betrayal.
Confessions of a Former Bully by Trudy Ludwig and Beth Adams - Also aimed at a younger audience, this book uses a scrapbook format to give a fictional account of a child who realized she was being a bully and how she changed her ways. The unusual perspective illustrates the ways kids can be bullied (or bully each other).
How to Report Cyberbullying
If your child is being cyberbullied, tell him or her not to respond to any of messages, but do not delete them, says Fitzgerald. "Print them out in their entirety, including the email address or online screen name of the bully," she says. "You will need this to prove what is happening or to track down an anonymous, threatening post."
NetBullies.com has a section called "Report It" that includes a form for parents to report cases of cyberbullying to the offender's ISP, the school, and the police. In addition, StopCyberbullying.org provides plenty of info (including an Internet Superheroes' Philosophy) on what to do if you report the behavior.
"When a bully is confronted on his or her actions, 70 percent of the time the bullying will stop," says Lisa Shaw, senior director of child safety at SpectorSoft, a monitoring software product used to provide evidence for law enforcement for legal action.
Linda DiProperzio is a mom and a freelance writer covering a variety of topics, including parenting and pregnancy. Her work can be viewed at www.lindadiproperzio.com.