Keeping Tabs on Your Kid and the Internet
by Carolyn Ridder Aspenson
As a freelance writer for several Atlanta-based newspapers, I am given interesting assignments-some fun and some down right scary. Recently I was given an assignment about kids and the (sadly) hugely popular webcam sex sites and what those sites lead to.
I was horrified.
Initially I started searching the sites, for the main purpose of seeing what they are and how many I could find. And then, BAM! The light bulb went off over my head and I realized I'd have a record of these sites on my computer. Not a bright move given police can track this kind of stuff. I don't think I'm on any watch list but I certainly didn't want to put myself in a position to be added to one! Instead I decided to contact a few professionals-hit them up for information.
After talking to them and doing some general research on the concept of the sites, what I learned was alarming.
What children, especially those in middle school, are doing might surprise you.
"There are countless internet sites where kids can participate in inappropriate behaviors," Milton, GA Police Department Community Outreach Officer Ara Baronian said. "Unfortunately what a lot of these kids don't realize is that these (inappropriate) behaviors are illegal."
These sites often begin as chat rooms where kids develop on-line relationships, then start sharing personal information, information like cell phone numbers, addresses, and favorite hangouts. In a short time, these relationships progress into sexting, webcam sex, and often times, physical encounters.
States have different laws about sexting, sending photos, etc. and if you have a child with a cell phone, I suggest finding out what your states laws are. In Georgia sending any kind of sexually explicit photo got you on the national sex offender list but the laws have recently changed because so many kids were being labeled.
Baronian said the legal consequences children can face by going to these sites can change their lives forever.
" As long as both parties are similar in age they are both breaking the law," he said.
Having that tough talk with your kids is important. I interviewed several people for my article and most of them truly believed their kid wouldn't participate in anything inappropriate. They gave their kid free, unmonitored Internet access.
These parents are fooling themselves.
Mental Health Professional Sharon Besterfeldt said it's important to understand where your children are emotionally before allowing them access to the Internet.
"By nature, middle school aged children are curious," she said. "They're moving away from the total control from their parents and seeking more in-depth relationships outside of the family, but are still not mature enough to have securely established boundaries."
Both Baronian and Besterfeldt said the key to preventing this is parental control.
"Checking the web history on your computers, reading text messages, monitoring usage of all Internet technology is important," Baronian said.
Besterfeldt agreed and said it's the parent's responsibility to establish boundaries for their kids.
"Give your kids time limits, use parental control software and keep electronics locked up when you're not home," Besterfeldt said.
The truth is, you may think our kids aren't doing something they shouldn't be doing but remember all of those things you did as a kid? I know I did things I wasn't supposed to. The difference today is the stakes are higher and the dangers are worse.
I'm not saying parents shouldn't trust their kids but the fact is, often times, curiosity overrules parental guidance.
And the really scary thing about these sites and what they lead to is that it's not just other kids your child might be interacting with.
"The most important thing people should know about chat rooms and social media sites is that over 50 percent of the people on these sites are falsely representing themselves and are predatory by nature," Baronian said.
Besterfeldt said it's important to educate your kids about the dangers of the Internet on a regular basis.
"Parents need to have uncomfortable conversations with their kids, it's part of parenting," she said. "They need to acknowledge their child's curiosity but continuously reiterate the dangers that curiosity can cause if they're not careful."
"They need to understand that once something is on the Internet, it's there forever," she said.
Continually check your children's phones for apps like SnapChat and free texting apps. Check computers for these types of sites, too. Parental controls can stop some but no parental control program is 100%. Many sites can slide through the cracks because of what their intention is but what kids actually use them for is another thing entirely. www.meetme.com is a prime example of a social networking site gone bad.
SnapChat, for example, gives the premise that someone can send a photo or text and it's automatically deleted, but there is evidence showing that to be untrue.
The world has changed. Sex isn't as intimate as back in the day and as parents we have to find a way to protect our children from the dangers this new attitude brings to the table.
Carolyn Ridder Aspenson is a freelance writer based in Cumming, GA. She is the author of the fiction novel, Unfinished Business, An Angela Panther Novel. Find out more about Carolyn at www.carolynridderaspenson.com, www.facebook.com/unfinishedbusiness
Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @AWritingWoman
Buy Carolyn's book at http://www.amazon.com/Unfinished-Business-Angela-Panther-ebook/dp/B00CICPH6A