A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety: Sexuality and the Internet Print

By Barbara Huberman, RN, BSN, MEd, Director of Education and Outreach, Advocates for Youth 

Barbara HubermanStudies have shown that many teens have used the Internet to look for information on health and sexuality, including topics they may not feel comfortable talking about with parents, teachers or health care providers – from depression to sexual orientation. The internet can be an important source of information for many young people, but it should be handled with care.

How can parents protect their children from material on the Internet offensive to their values without cutting their children off from everything on the Internet that is beneficial? How can parents protect their children from predators?

There are steps you can take to help protect and also empower your child.  The first is understanding what children and teens are doing online and the benefits and drawbacks of popular online activities.

  1. Interactivity is the name of the game.  Children and teens use the Internet and social networking sites like MySpace.com and Facebook.com to keep in touch with their friends, to post instant updates on their activities, to talk about topics that interest them, and to get involved with groups with similar interests. Thousands of vibrant communities exist online, and these can provide support and encouragement for your child; but so does the possibility of connecting with strangers and predators.

    Predators exploit common feelings of adolescence, like confusion and sexual curiosity, to convince children and young teens to become sexually involved with them. They may even use threats and coercion to manipulate your child. These days many young people understand that online predators are common, but parents must still be vigilant and take steps to protect their children.

  2. Posting and viewing pictures and video is common and in itself a way of networking. Not only does every social networking site provide the user with options for posting pictures and video, but sites like YouTube and Flickr allow users to comment on photos and video, encouraging interaction with friends and others. It is a fun way to express oneself and share experiences. But young people and their parents must be aware of the following realities:
    • Moms, teachers, friends, enemies, strangers, predators, and future employers are all online and might see the images you post. 
    • Even innocuous images can be subject to lewd commentary from strangers if left available to the public.
    • Restricting who can view your images is not infallible – images can easily get out to the wider Internet.

    Further, material on these sites may be offensive and in other ways problematic. Images ranging from the graphically violent to the pornographic are common. In addition, “video bullies” may record their attacks, pranks, or other embarrassing situations and place them online, leaving the victim open to ridicule and further torment. And as with any interactive site, predators may coerce young people into videotaping and posting sexually explicit acts.

  3. Searching is second-nature, yet not all information is reliable.  “Google it” and “Check Wikipedia” have entered the lexicon as means young people can use to find information about many topics, including their sexual and reproductive health and rights. But, with millions of sites available, not every one provides good information. Arm your child with reliable, monitored sites like www.scarleteen.com, www.goaskalice.columbia.edu, www.mysistahs.org, www.youthresource.com, www.amplifyyourvoice.org, and www.sexetc.org so you know they’re getting accurate, non-judgmental information.

  4. Young people may be vulnerable to “phishing” and other attempts to learn their personal information. “Phishing” is an attempt to steal someone’s password or other private information. Make sure your child knows never to give out their passwords or private information to anyone but you; and make sure their passwords include both letters and numbers and is not easy to guess.

Read more about popular online activities

Protecting Your Children

How, then, can parents protect their children from predators, exposure, misinformation, and loss of privacy? Check out the tips below, and consider signing and asking your child to sign the “Agreement About Using the Internet”

  • Communication is key. One researcher said, “A warm parent-child relationship with open channels for communicating is the most important non-technical method that parents can use to deal with the challenges of the sexualized media environment.” She advises parents to discuss media experiences with their children, and to be open about discussing sex with their children.

    From Parry Aftab, Executive Director and noted cyber lawyer of WiredSafety.org:

    “Talk to them, talk to them.” 11½ -15 is the most susceptible age range. “Ask them what they are doing. The more involved you are with their lives, the less involved they’re going to be with a predator.”  Since predators may play on children’s fears of exposure, it’s of the utmost importance that your child feel comfortable coming to you with problems and concerns.

  • Communication goes both ways – it’s important to listen to your child as well as talk to him or her. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 64 percent of parents say they have internet rules while only 37 percent of teens say they have internet rules. Even if rules are established, parent-child communication remains crucial.
  • Don’t let your kids be their own worst enemy! Teach them sensible online behavior and precautions.
    • Protecting their safety: Teens and children should never give out their personal information to a stranger or arrange to meet a stranger. Teens also shouldn’t open pictures they receive from someone they don’t know. Talk to your teen about the dangers of communicating with people they don’t know online.
    • Protecting their privacy: Every major social networking site allows public profiles, pictures, and even video. This generation is accustomed to taking pictures and posting instantaneous updates on their activities. But it’s important that you talk to them about the risks of posting pictures and share your values on what it is appropriate to post online. One option is to blur or morph your photos a bit so they won’t be abused by cyberbullies or predators
    • Protecting their passwords: Passwords shouldn’t be shared with friends or with anyone online. Passwords also shouldn’t be easy to guess – your birthday, your nickname, and your pet’s name are all out. Ideally, make your password something entirely random –or at least include a number in it.
  • Use good judgment in monitoring or restricting your children’s internet use.  Young people need privacy in their online social lives just as in their in-person social lives.  An open, honest relationship with your child is the best way to stay in-the-know about their online activities.
    • “Spying” on your child’s internet activity will alienate them and lead them to become even more secretive, whereas asking them about it can lead to a more productive dialogue. 
From Parry Aftab:
  • Ask to see their profile page (for the first time)… tomorrow! (It gives them a chance to remove everything that isn’t appropriate or safe… and it becomes a way to teach them what not to post instead of being a gotcha moment! Think of it as the loud announcement before walking downstairs to a teen party you’re hosting).
  • Help them understand that strangers can see their online profiles. That’s the difference between their paper diary that is tucked away in their sock drawer, and their MySpace. One is between them and the paper it’s written on; the other is between them and 700 million people online!  Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your parents, principal or a predator to see.
  • Blocks and filters may block important sexuality information and discussion from your child. While so-called “cyber nannies” might be appropriate for younger children, using them with older youth may inadvertently be keeping these youth from the vital sexual health information they need to protect themselves.   

More Tips for Teens from Parry Aftab:

  • Protect your password and make sure you really know who someone is before you allow them on to your friends list
  • What you post online stays online – forever!!!! So think before you click!
  • Check what your friends are posting/saying about you. Even if you are careful, they may not be and may be putting you at risk.

More Tips for Parents from Parry Aftab:

  • Don’t panic… there are ways of keeping your kids safe online. It’s easier than you think!
  • Talk to your kids – ask questions (and then confirm to make sure they are telling you the truth!)
  • Don’t believe everything you read online – especially if your teen posts it on her MySpace!
  • And, finally… repeat after me – “I’m still the parent!” If they don’t listen or follow your rules, unplug the computer… the walk to the library will do them good,

Resources for Parents:

WiredSafety.org is the world’s premier online safety and help organization and has extensive information available about all aspects of online safety available on our website.

Parent/Youth Contract for Internet Safety

Resources for Youth:

There are a lot of great websites with information on many aspects of sexuality. With websites like these, youth may be less likely to feel the need to look for explicit images and potentially dubious sources for information on such issues.

Some great websites:

Popular Online Activities

Many young people participate in these activities.  Make sure you are familiar with them – you might find you enjoy them too!

Blog: Blog is short for Web Log. A web log is usually a personal site often similar to personal journals. They may contain links to other web sites, photos, various commentaries, and anything else the person wishes to share about themselves. It is a place for people to express themselves- a personal space open for other people to see, and comment/post on the site as well.

Instant Message (IM): Instant Messaging is a service that allows people to send and receive messages almost instantly. Many young people use Instant Messages to talk with friends, who are listed on their friend lists. They are generally very safe, but it is important to know the person who is messaging your child, as instant messages are unmoderated. 

Message Board:   Message boards are interactive, advice-based forums. They are usually a feature on a particular site. Participants often post messages on these boards, respond to other posts, or ask questions of the online community. Such boards, respond to other post, or ask questions of the online community. Such boards may or may not be moderated, meaning an adult supervises the post, ensuring there is nothing inflammatory or offensive. www.scarleteen.com and www.sexetc.org have some great, fully staffed message boards on pregnancy, gender issues, LGBTI issues, abuse, relationships, etc.

Social Networking: A social networking site is a web site specifically focused on the building of social networks and creating online communities. Many social networking services also host blog services, buddy lists, personal web pages, and groups of people with similar interests. As of 2009, there are over three hundred known social networking web sites. Two immensely popular social networks are Facebook (www.facebook.com ), and MySpace (myspace.com) – most teens with Internet access have a profile on one or both of these.

Video Networking: YouTube and others

Video Networking is new technology that allows anyone to upload and share videos they produce, copy, or find. They can usually also rate others’ videos, set a list of favorites and link to others. They are sometimes also called video-sharing sites. But they are not to be confused with media sharing sites/services such as Limewire or Kazaa. The video-sharing technology allows people to download the videos you are sharing.  Most video-networks allow you to watch, or link to, them, not copy them.

You also don’t need expensive equipment. Now everyone with equipment as simple as a cell phone video camera or as advanced as broadcast-quality gear can take and post videos online. Most of the popular sites require that you only ‘register’ in order to be able to upload or download site content. Registration is almost always free.

How graphic does the video get? How graphic do you want? There are documented incidents of graphic combat video from the Iraq war, be-headings, pornography, graphic fights, pedophilia and other highly objectionable material has been posted to the various sharing sites.

What are the potential risks? Young children react in different ways to explicit videos. Older teens can be affected as well. Not to mention the potential for video-bullying… situations that were caught on tape and now available for the entire world to see. The affect this has on the target of the bullying can be immense. There are also situations where internet predators have coerced, badgered or even black-mailed young victims they have found online to perform various sex acts on camera and then send it to them. They used the threats of something bad happening to them or someone they loved if they didn’t play along. Most of the time these predators have managed to isolate these kids from their families, who typically are totally unaware of what is going on in their own households.

Take a look at the “Agreement About Using the Internet” and think about asking your child to sign it with you. 

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