Opinion

Where on the Net are your kids?

MARCH 9 — In my last column, I spoke of the need for parents to seriously take note of what their respective children do online and keep track of the kind of engagement that they may be involved in.

My argument was that just because they are behind the confines of a “safe environment” in the home or at school, they are not necessarily safe from predators, who are in abundance on the Net, and who are ready to pounce on our kids as a roaring lion would.

If you’re not convinced that you should consider the following statistics revealed by Trend Micro, a notable Internet security firm. Today’s youth increasingly rely on the Internet, and according to one survey, one in three children said they could not live without it.

Coming down to country specific statistics, here are some figures: In Taiwan, about 26 per cent of children use the Internet for over three hours every day, and this ratio significantly increases to 50.2 per cent over the weekend. In the Philippines, 19 per cent of kids who are 13 to 17 are into Facebook. In South Korea, 15 per cent of children and teenagers are addicted to Internet/video games, with 90 per cent of children are exposed to obscene material by the age of 12. And in Taiwan, 25 per cent of children have been exposed to pornography on the Internet.

There were unfortunately no statistics for Malaysia, but given the universal nature of children and the Internet, and the growing access of broadband in the country, I would surmise that the statistics would somewhat be similar.

Trend Micro goes on to say that unwanted contact, which comes in two forms — online grooming and cyber-bullying — is quite serious. Its studies show that one in seven children who are regular Internet users receive sexual solicitations online, and one in three is exposed to unwanted sexual material. The security firm notes that one in 10 (12 per cent) parents say their child has experienced cyberbullying while 24 per cent of parents say they know of a child in their community who has experienced cyberbullying.

What comes to our children is only one part of the equation. With the advent of social media through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Instagram and Path, children can also post information about themselves online, making the Net very participatory in nature. Trend Micro notes that children will be more likely to reveal personal data such as email addresses, cell phone numbers and school names to other parties.

Also, the various applications and services available online mean that children can readily access files such as movies, music and software; however, these might be illegal, or might be malware in disguise that could infect the user’s system.

What parents can do

Trend Micro reveals that while 83 per cent of parents claim to be worried about their children’s online behaviour, only 30 per cent actually visit their children’s social networking profiles to see what they are doing online.

As mentioned in my last column, parents need to firstly admit that this issue affects them more than they think they know. Upon doing so, they need to get educated and learn what are the dangers out there as well as what can be done to mitigate such dangers.

Beyond that, they must learn to talk openly about the dangers lurking behind the services that their children subscribe to. The key to this is to spend time talking about these issues in an everyday setting, for instance, over the dinner table or when driving them to school, not only when children have crossed the line and are being punished by being given a “talking to.”

While these social networking services are Internet-based and can be challenging to those who are not technologically savvy, the advice we dispense to our kids is based on commonsense. For example, one of the first things we can do is to set boundaries of what kind of websites or applications they can or can’t use, and for how long they can use these services or apps.

Some parents might feel that they need to give space to their children insofar as their privacy is concerned but in order to effectively monitor children, parents will still need to unequivocally spell out the rules.

These include having the permission to access their email or Facebook accounts to see what they are up to in these spaces or having the ability to spot check on their children’s laptops, tablets or computers for content that they view and places that their they surf to.

Some parents may also choose to use a “covenant,” a promise of “Do Nots” which both parents and child strive to adhere to. An example of this, recommended by Trend Micro, could be as follows:

1. I will not share private information with anybody or post this information anywhere (e.g. name, school, age, phone numbers, addresses, etc.)

2. I will never send pictures or exchange information with people I have only met online and strangers.

3. I will keep my password private and share them only with my parents.

4. I will never chat, open emails or read private messages from strangers.

5. I will be strict in accepting friends’ or contact requests.

6. I will immediately tell my parents when I see, read, hear or watch something mean, creepy or awful online.

7. I will be respectful of others online. I will treat people online the same way I would treat them in the real world.

Above all, we need to assure our children that we are regulating them because we love them and want to protect them, and that we’re not regulating them to kill their joy. Once they understand that you as parents have their well-being in mind, they will in all likelihood adhere to the boundaries you set for them.

Next column, I shall delve into what else parents can do to deal with this challenge.

For more information on this, check out the following sites: Trend Micro Internet Safety for Kids & Family Website, Childnet International, Wisekids.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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