January 6, 2006





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Regular monitoring is a key to teens' online safety

By Shannon Weatherford

     Technology, especially the Internet, has grown and developed at such a rapid pace that it’s often difficult for parents to keep up; more often than not, it’s the adult asking the child for assistance, whether it be setting up a new cell phone, installing the latest computer software or locating information on the Internet.
     That mindset must change if parents want to protect their children from online dangers – it needs to be recognized, first and foremost, that even though teens are accessing the Internet from the safety of a classroom, school library or even the family room, the Internet is still a very public place. Allowing children of any age free and open access to the Internet without close adult or parental supervision is the equivalent of leaving a child alone to play in New York’s Central Park.
     According to experts, the most difficult aspect of combating cyberbullying and related online risks is that parents and kids relate to technology differently. Parents view computers and the Internet as tools for the most part, whereas for kids, the Internet is a lifeline to their peer group. Teens are experts at clicking windows on and off to keep parents from seeing the pages they are viewing and even have IM speak to alert their friends that an adult has invaded their computer space – POS means “parent over shoulder” – because to most teens, the thought of having their computer privileges taken away is paramount to being locked away in a tower.
     Jo Melillo-Long, principal at Susan B. Anthony Elementary School in Corona and a Canyon Lake resident, is in the unique position to see the issue from two sides – as both a school administrator and parent to two daughters, one in elementary school and the other high school age. “As a principal, I work diligently to forewarn parents about possible safety hazards,” she explains. “At the same time, as a parent, I can understand how we can become lulled into thinking that, because the computer and the Internet is in our home, it’s safe for our children. It’s simply not the case.”
     The growing problems of teens and their online behavior recently garnered the attention of school officials in Murrieta, who warned parents of MySpace.com, urging them to determine if their child has a MySpace.com account and, if so, to monitor it on a regular basis. “As an educator and parent I’ve learned that sites like MySpace.com allow our children’s communications to be open to the world, literally,” says Melillo-Long. “Our children are vulnerable internationally now due to these websites; the tentacles of predators are far-reaching.”
     So how can parents ensure that their children don’t engage in improper behavior while online or keep them safe from the psychological harm a cyberbully can inflict? “Websites and all levels of Internet use by our children require diligent monitoring. It’s exhausting after a long adult day. However, for our children’s sake, it’s a required part of the job,” says Melillo-Long. Absentee monitoring using filtering software and blocking programs can provide some measure of protection from harmful or inappropriate websites but they cannot interpret and stop dangerous behavior online.
      New technologies can be a moving target for parents to deal with, but education is the key for parents to intelligently monitor their teens’ Internet use. Learn how to surf the Internet, visit sites like MySpace.com and become familiar with IM-speak – that strange, truncated language of abbreviations and acronyms that allow teens to carry on complete conversations with the least amount of keystrokes.
     At an age where teens are developing and strengthening their internalized personal moral codes, they can be influenced by the lack of tangible feedback and perception of invisibility that the Internet and other forms of non-personal communication tend to foster. The lack of tangible feedback undermines empathetic response and feelings of remorse, making it easier to rationalize online actions, while the perception of invisibility negates the potential impact of both authority and social disapproval.
     Most parents wouldn’t hesitate to assume responsibility for their child’s behavior on a playground, at school or in someone else’s home – online behavior should be no different. Parents should begin by discussing basic computer ethics with their children, explaining that just because they are alone behind a keyboard and a monitor doesn’t mean that there are different (or no) rules for treating others with respect and courtesy; online communities are communities nonetheless. Stipulate rules of conduct and establish consequences, but focus on the reasons for the rules rather than the rules themselves to help teens develop a better understanding of why the rules are in place, as well as helping to develop their sense of empathy.
     Greek philosopher Plato posed the question of how people would choose to behave if invisible in the story of the Ring of Gyges, perhaps foretelling the ethical dilemmas facing a technological society. In Plato’s story, a shepherd named Gyges comes upon a ring that he discovers, quite by accident, can render him invisible when the signet is turned to the inside of his hand. Gyges, who had been an honorable man before finding it, uses the ring and its powers of invisibility to eventually murder the king and take his throne. Plato used invisibility as a symbol of the power to escape detection in asking why should we do right if we can get away with doing wrong. In the case of Internet use, teens need to be made aware that their online actions do impact others and simply because they aren’t there to witness the effects of those actions doesn’t mean that there was no effect.
     Teach teens that they don’t have to be “always on.” Using the Internet has become second-nature for most teens and it’s where they live out a good majority of their social lives, often to the detriment of actual personal, face to face socialization. Make them turn off, disconnect, unplug and give actual reality, rather than virtual reality, a try. Doing so will help them in developing proper social skills which, in turn, can guide them in making better online decisions.
     Teens who are the target of cyberbullies, or who are being enticed or harassed online are often fearful of telling an adult because they tend feel that they are somehow at fault and, as a result, will have their computer privileges revoked. Creating an open, non-threatening environment through discussion can help encourage teens to report threatening behavior to an adult before more serious problems result. Signs that a teen may be dealing with cyberthreats can include a sudden withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities or friends, declining grades or becoming emotional after using the computer. Options for responding to a cyberbully range from simply ignoring the offender or asking them the stop, to keeping any evidence (emails, text messages, etc.) of the incidents and reporting the cyberbully to their parents, the school, or, in severe cases, the police. In addition, cyberbullying is a violation of the terms of use for most web sites, Internet service providers and cell phone companies; parents can file complaints by providing proof of harmful material or messages and request that the account be terminated and any harmful material removed.
     The Internet is a wide, wonderful world full of boundless information and new ways to communicate and connect with others, but without guidance, teens can easily fall prey to the dangers lurking all around them in cyberspace. Parents take their children’s hands in their own to teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, and it should be no different when their teens begin venturing out on the super highway of the Internet.


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