Saturday, June 17, 2006

BEWARE OF THE WOLVES THAT LURK IN THE DEEP, DARK FOREST THAT IS THE INTERNET

[I wrote this article recently and have sent it to a local newspaper for publishing as well.]

More often than not, teachers and parents of teens are blissfully unaware of what their kids are up to when they are on the Internet. For those of us keeping tabs on issues of kid safety on the Internet, nary a week goes by these days without the mention of some nightmarish teen experience related to their Internet explorations, or what the big players in the Internet “Social Networking” space (Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and others) are doing (or rather attempting to do) to make their software tools safer for teen-use. The truth is that nothing works better than raising awareness levels among schools, teachers, parents, and above all, kids themselves, of the potential dangers that lurk in Internet chat rooms and social spaces, as well as in the seemingly innocuous act of music/video file sharing.

At a recent workshop I conducted for teachers of Mallya Aditi International school, Bangalore, on issues of Internet use by teachers and kids in their teaching & learning, the section on safe use of the Internet was an eye-opener, and prompted a session dedicated solely to this topic, with parents of middle-schoolers in the same school. This article is prompted by the earnest plea of the teachers and parents who attended these sessions that I get the word out and reach many more parents/teachers who live in blissful ignorance of these very real dangers.

Types of Risks
The 4 types of risks that I associate with Internet use among kids in urban India are –

  1. Harmful relationships with online strangers
  2. Peer-to-Peer File Sharing
  3. Access to Inappropriate Material, and,
  4. Loss of Privacy - which is a potential danger inherent in almost all online interactions with others, especially strangers.

Harmful Relationships With Online Strangers
This is very likely to happen if your kids are visiting unmoderated chat rooms, chatting on MSN Messenger, Yahoo Instant Messaging, Skype or GMail chat. Pedophiles have been known to frequent chat rooms that are popular with children and teens. This may also happen through the vast number of “social networking” and blogging sites that have burgeoned on the Internet. Social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Google’s Orkut, MSN Spaces, Xanga and Hi5 are becoming increasingly popular with teens even in India, for chatting, exchanging photos and extending their network of “friends”. While several of these mandate a minimum age requirement of 14 or 15, there is obviously no system of verification.
Recent stories from the US such as the assault on a teenager that was linked to her presence on Myspace and that of teen Justin Berry, while extreme and not everyday occurrences, stand as testimonials to the horrific turn that some innocent Internet explorations can take, especially when kids use webcams along with Chat.

Child Safety Tips for Chatting and Blogging and “Social Networking” on the Internet-
• Do not visit unmoderated chat rooms.
• Only chat with people you know and have met in person, preferably kids your own age.
• Keep your profile as anonymous as possible. Do not provide your full name, address, phone number, or school information in your user profile.
• Because many spammers use names they can easily collect from a chat room, consider having a "chat" screen name. This name would be one that is different than your e-mail address. This could help prevent unwanted Spam mail from coming to you.
• Never agree to give out personal information in a chat conversation with anyone.
• Never to agree to get together with anyone you meet in a chat room without first checking with your parents.
• Always remember that people are not always who they seem to be on the Internet.
• Be wary of the use of webcams.
• Never post a photograph on the Internet without getting your parents’ permission. In general, avoid posting photos. Remember that things have a way of staying online forever; what may be done with your photos (even ones you send to “friends”) may be beyond your control.
• Don’t lie about your age on social networking sites. If you are too young to sign up, have your parents find an alternative that is age-appropriate for you.

Peer-to-Peer File Sharing
Does your child download mp3 music files off of the Internet? Chances are the he/she is doing this in violation of the law. Hundreds of children in urban India are using Peer-to-Peer or P2P file sharing applications such as Kazaa, Limewire and Morpheus to illegally download copyrighted music files from the Internet. These programs work by providing access to a portion of your computer to everyone else on the network and vice versa. The risks and downsides to doing this are many-
· Computers on P2P networks are vulnerable to viruses, spyware and other malignant code. A harmless-looking music file may be bundled with a virus or spyware that then gets access to your computer
· More that 35% of the total P2P traffic is pornographic in nature. Your child may inadvertently download age-inappropriate, sexually explicit material.
· There is a danger of strangers getting access to sensitive information on your computer, related to your finances or employment.
· Some day the law may catch up with violators of Copyright Law. Music sharing through these means is illegal.

So what is the solution to this? Join a paid music club and download music legally.

Access to Inappropriate Material on the Internet
...is usually just a click away! This material could be of a sexually explicit nature, be violent and hateful, or may advocate and glorify the use of drugs, weapons, alcohol or tobacco.

Ever misspelled a URL (a website address) and had a pornographic site load up? Not long ago, misspelling google.com with an extra ‘l’ brought up an asian porn site. Several parents and teachers have had embarrassing experiences with children searching on school-related material using seemingly innocuous keywords on Google. Among the tricks pornographers have been known to use is the linking of kid-friendly keywords such as “pokemon” and “Action Man” to porn sites.

The solution?

  • Encourage kids to use kid-safe search engines such as Onekey and ensure that you are using “Strict” Search Preferences on Google.
  • Educate your kids about the presence of inappropriate material.
  • Bookmark child-friendly web sites. This allows your children to easily get to safe sites that they have used before.
  • Teach children to crash and tell. If they encounter a bad experience, they should feel comfortable in immediately turning off the computer and talking with you about the experience
  • Teach children to never open email from someone they don't know.
  • Never respond to an ‘Unsubscribe’ on a pornographic email.

So what else can you do as a parent or teacher?

  • Place your computer in an open room with the monitor in plain view. This allows you to keep tabs on your child's online activities.
  • Limit the amount of time your kids spend on the Internet.
  • Have up-to-date anti-virus software protection for your computer
  • Consider installing software that filters specific sites and/or monitors online activity.
  • Consider not allowing your kids to go online when you are not home.
  • Find time to stay up-to-date on issues of kid safety on the Internet. There are several relevant sites such as http://www.safekids.com/ and http://www.wiredsafety.org/.
  • Finally, remember that there is absolutely no substitute for adult supervision of your kids’ online activity.

3 comments:

Zephyr said...

(My vision could be jaundiced because i dont have kids and the fact that I have had conversations with people who were being completely paranoid )
Besides the common sense
suggestions you make about how to go about reducing the probabilities of problems, I think it is important to present the "other" side of the story as well - that even though faceless, the internet is no different than real life - avoid getting too familiar with strangers; dont walk around in places where you could land into trouble etc. And just like in real life, parents should *try* and walk a fine dividing line - careful but not psychotic. Overdoing it leads to either provoking the chil dto do the opposite or make him fearful. Wish your presentation had bought accross the balance aspect even though I understand it was a *safety* related presentation. it is a jungle, yes but then so is society as a whole. nothing very different about this medium.
Am sure you will let me know if I am talking nonsense !

Shuchi Grover said...

Building awareness (rather than spooking people out) was really the aim of the workshop.
While you and I understand that all common sense cautions apply to Internet just as they do in real life, most parents do not know of any potential dangers on the Internet. So while they may be exercising appropriate caution in their kids' real world activities, their kids online activities are a black box to them. Besides, dangers in the virtual world, by virtue of being faceless, are that much better concealed. Which is why kids and parents need to be aware, and that much more careful. I do take your point that there has to be a balance - and I hope that that was a take-away from the workshop as well, where I encouraged parents to let their kids experiment with the affordances of the new web (they are after all the 'Net generation') but to do it with appropriate levels of supervision (by parents) and awareness (both kids and parents).

Techno Mommy said...

Zephyr:

I don't believe you can be too careful. I guess I am the psychotic parent. I am a technology teacher in Florida, currently teaching Internet Safety. I show the videos on netsmartz.org. They are sponsored by the National Bureau of Missing and Exploited Children. The fact that there is need for this bureau justifies any and all warnings to children and parents, no matter to what degree.

I start my classes with the following real-world analogy to the internet. When my daughter turned 12 years old she wanted me to let her stay home alone. Reluctantly I agreed. We practiced the entire "lockdown" of the house. The doors were locked, shades drawn, even woke up the dog. She got the warnings and repeated them. "Don't answer the door", "Don't talk to strangers", and "Don't answer the phone". I stayed on my cell phone with her while at the grocery store across the street. We discussed what I was buying and how she was feeling being alone. I was so proud of her.

Then it happened....the doorbell rang. This wonderful, obedient, responsible child put me on hold to answer the door! Before I could stop her, I heard a man's voice walking around my house, telling my daughter he had to shut our sprinkler's off before the association sent us a letter. You can only imagine the sheer terror I was experiencing while listening to a man in my home with my child, while driving like a lunatic to save her.

We were lucky enough that it was a neighbor trying to be helpful. Believe that I had plenty to say to this adult walking into a strange house, knowing that her parents were not at home. He felt terrible.

It's a dangerous world and it seems, at least in my case, that no matter how much you warn your children, they sometimes don't think.

There is no replacement for parental supervision.