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A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety (Part 2)

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by Grant Stenzel, LCPC

What you don’t know can hurt you.

I find most parents do not have a good understanding of the dangers that can accompany all of the electronic gadgets their children have. Also, there is no way to know of all of the potential hazards that your children may have to navigate. I am hoping to introduce you to some of these hazards to help guide your children.

Do you remember the first time you sent your son or daughter to the park alone?

I do. My wife and I were very nervous and continued to lecture our son about “Stranger Danger” and how to keep himself safe of potential problems at the park. Though I was nervous I felt confident in the advice I gave my son. Why? Because I felt like I had a good handle on all the potential dangers and what should be done about them.

We can’t even imagine sending our children to the park without all the training and warnings that we can. Yet, we send our children out onto the World Wide Web, texting, gaming and the like with very little warnings at all. Why? Because we just don’t know.

So what is out there? What should you be concerned about?

I will break this into three categories:

1.     Harmful content

2.     Predators

3.     Abuse

Harmful content is probably the category you have heard the most about. We all know that there is pornography on the web. It is actually the industry that boosted the web to the size that it is today. Internet pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry. Some parents, in their honesty, have asked me “What is the harm of their kid viewing pornography?” Well, as a marriage counselor, I will tell you it will drastically injure their future marriage and how they view the opposite sex. As a sex addiction counselor I will remind them that pornography is as chemically addicting in the brain as cocaine.

Not only is there porn sites, there are normal sites that have graphic materials. YouTube and Facebook are just two examples of sites that mostly have benign material but also have very inappropriate materials at the same time. And they are not hard to find.

Along the same lines, we now have kids sexting, e-mailing nude pictures to each other and inappropriate behavior on video chatting. Sexting, if you do not already know, is when someone texts (or instant messages) sexual content to another person. E-mailing nude pictures is pretty self-explanatory; however, what most people do not know that any person under the age of 18 sending nude pictures to anyone else is child pornography. It doesn’t matter if it is two consenting 16-year-olds.

If a boyfriend sends a nude picture to his girlfriend, it is the distribution of child pornography, and if the girlfriend keeps it, it is the possession of child pornography. Both of which are felonies. Video chatting has also become popular with the easy and free access to programs like Skype.

What comes to mind when I use the word “predator”?
You probably envision something like a 50 year old white male, balding, with a dirty white t-shirt driving a van. Some predators are like that. However that is very deceiving. High school students can and are predators.

In 2008, a high school senior in Wisconsin posed as a female on Facebook. He then persuaded 31 boys to send him naked pictures of themselves by promising to send naked pictures back (remember he is posing as a beautiful high school girl). He then blackmailed some of these boys, threatening to distribute their pictures to the whole school, into performing sex acts with him.

Predators come in all shapes and sizes and it isn’t just adults, it isn’t just males. Predators can strike anywhere. They can lure adolescents from chat rooms, social media sites and even online games. Remember your talk with your child about stranger danger? Have you had one about these less obvious strangers?

The third category I want to present to you is abuse.
I use the word abuse because it isn’t just cyber-bullying anymore. There is also digital dating abuse. Let define both for you. Cyber-bullying is simply bullying another person via an electronic method. It can be as simple as a put down from a text to as complex as creating entire Facebook pages devoted to making fun of a person or spreading lies about them. It also can manifest in the form of multiple kids sending abusive messages to kids. Adolescents can “hijack” other students online pages and posing as that student say awful things creating the illusion that it is from that student. Hijacking a person’s social media page is find out a password or simply hacking into someone’s account and posting information there. My son once hijacked my Facebook account and put “My son is the greatest ever” as my status. This is a funny example of hijacking, but you can imagine the power one teen can have over another with this method.

We had bullies when we were growing up, so what is the big deal? Here is the big deal. When we were bullied we always had a safe place to run: Home. We could get away from taunts and threats. Now, with social media, texting, emailing and such, the bullies can come right into your son or daughter’s bedroom. They can’t get away from it.

I could give you much more examples and stories, but I need to move on.

What’s “Digital dating abuse?”
Chances are you haven’t heard this term yet. However you NEED to know more about this subject if you have teenagers. Digital dating abuse is simply one partner harassing, stalking, blackmailing and abusing the other. It can come in many forms. A girlfriend may text her boyfriend thirty times in one hour asking him where he is, who is with, what he is doing. A boyfriend may text his girlfriend threating her if she doesn’t give in to his demands. Often times a teen will end up isolating their partner from friends and family to be just with them by using emotional abuse and coercion.

Emotional abuse and intimidation is nothing new in dating relationships. However, with all of the different ways teens can communicate with each other it can be amplified and almost unstoppable.

One of the more scary forms of digital abuse is blackmailing.
A boyfriend may have a compromising picture of his girlfriend and may threaten her to send it to her parents unless she gives in to his demands. A girlfriend may have kept an email her boyfriend sent her sharing his heart to keep him from breaking up with her.

I have just touched the surface of many of the hazards your child may encounter in this new electronic age. I could not possibly list all of the dangers, or give all of the examples of each. Moreover, new dangers being thought up even as I write this article. I would apologize for scaring you, but I am not sorry. I hope that this article puts enough fear in your heart to do further research and ultimately do everything you can to protect your child.

In my next article, I will write about the signs to look for that your child may be having problems in one of these areas.

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