2010-04-30 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER With both computers and cell phones, kids can obtain access to the Internet to do research for school, learn about their interests, and keep in touch with friends and family. However, there is also a growing concern about the potential risks that children face as a result of the inappropriate use of these technologies. Fortunately, parents can take a number of precautions to help ensure that their children’s online time is both safe and productive.

The first step may be to have a frank conversation with your children regarding Internet and cell phone use. Many parents choose to set ground rules, but it is also important to explain to children why they should use caution. The same dangers that kids face in the physical world are also present online, including predators and bullies. There is also the added danger of scammers looking to steal your child’s identity.

It is important that children be warned against divulging personal information online. Instruct them not to give out their full name, any contact or descriptive information, or their daily schedule to people they do not know. They should be cautious about who they share photos and videos with and understand that anything they post on the Internet can easily be seen by other people. Explain to your children that avoiding discussing inappropriate or obscene topics makes them less likely to be targeted by predators.

As a parent, you should familiarize yourself with any social networking sites your children use. Just as you want to know who your kids are spending time with and what they are doing offline, be aware of their online friends and activities as well. You may want to advise your kids to limit their online friends to people they have actually met. In addition, many cell phones have GPS technology that allows kids to pinpoint where their friends are — and be pinpointed by them; explain to your kids why they should only broadcast their location to people they and you trust.

If your children receive e-mail, text messages, or online communications from people they do not know, they should not respond and should inform you. If they do meet people on the Internet, they should never agree to a face-to-face meeting without your permission and the meeting should not take place unless you are present. If your child receives inappropriate material while online or if someone is harassing them or displaying other questionable behavior, tell them not to respond and to inform you. If the person harassing your child online exhibits very suspect or dangerous behavior, you may want to report it to the local police.

Finally, talk to your kids about cyber bullying. Cyber bullying can happen via e-mail, text messages, social networking sites, and anywhere else your children connect with people electronically. Similar to other types of bullying, cyber bullying involves rumors but can also include images. In addition, the Internet and cell phones allow the bullying to occur even in the safety of your home. It is important to monitor what is being said to and about your children. If you suspect that your child is being cyber bullied, tell him or her not to respond to the bully and to delete the bully from any “friends” or “buddies” lists they may have. If the problem persists, you may want to contact school administrators, local authorities, and, if the bullying is taking place on social networking sites, the site administrators.

There are several options available to parents who wish to monitor what their children see and do online. Many Internet service providers, web browsers, cell phones, and e-mail services offer parental controls that allow parents to set restrictions.

Additionally, there are software programs available that help parents protect their child while online. These programs should be used as a supplement to, rather than as a replacement for, the other information found in this article. Even young children may have the knowledge necessary to get around restrictions. In addition, children can obtain access to the Internet in several locations, not all of which you can control, including school, at a friend’s house, and at the public library.

For more information about addressing Internet safety with your children, you can check out the Federal Trade Commission’s brochure “Net Cetera: Chatting with Kids About Being Online” at http://www.onguard online.gov/pdf/tec04.pdf or by calling 1-800-FTC-HELP. In addition, the New York State Attorney General has an Internet Bureau that contains information that can help families protect themselves from online threats. You can reach the Bureau at http://www.ag.ny.gov/bureaus/Interne t_bureau/about.html or by calling 212- 416-8433.

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