Internet access is almost universal for Canadian children and teenagers – not just through the computer, but also via devices like game consoles, portable media players and smartphones. With such access come all of the Internet’s amazing learning and entertainment opportunities, but also the darker side of the online world.

"For younger kids," says Stephen Balkam, founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, some of the most common safety risks include "exposure to inappropriate content such as pornography . . . and disturbing images and videos." Balkam, who also sits on the U.S. Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee and the Facebook Safety Advisory Board, outlines a different set of dangers for teens, such as cyberbullying, over-sharing, addictive behaviours and a loss of privacy and reputation.

Canadian youth are often unaware of such dangers. For example, Statistics Canada reports that three out of 10 Canadian children provide their address and real name on social networks. We chatted with some of the world’s leading online safety experts to help you understand what’s out there and how you can help your children enjoy the Internet in a healthy and safe manner.

Social media usage

Young Canadians actively use social media to a "far greater extent" than adults, according to the Parliament of Canada's social affairs division. They’re not just following their favourite celebrities on Twitter or friending their classmates on Facebook. They’re also uploading photos, commenting on blogs and actively participating in forums. Every interaction opens them up to safety risks.

"Re-educate yourself and your child about ‘stranger danger,’" advises Dr. Peggy Kendall, associate professor of communication studies at Bethel University and author of Connected: Christian Parenting in an Age of IM and Myspace. "Who is really a stranger? Anyone you haven’t seen with your own eyes. Don’t friend someone on Facebook if you haven’t met face-to-face – it doesn’t matter if they’re a friend of a friend. People lie."

Children should also be aware of the clues they may inadvertently leave when they set up social media accounts or upload information. "Help children choose a screen name that doesn’t disclose . . . their location," suggests Jill Starishevsky, New York City’s assistant district attorney and prosecutor of child abuse and sex crimes. She warns that the photos they upload could also clue cyberbullies and stalkers into their location, such as school photos.

"As the child gets older," says Starishevsky, "I certainly recommend that parents ‘friend’ their children on social media so they can be aware of what types of things the child is discussing and with whom the child is interacting."

Combating cyberbullies

"Cyberbullying and cyberstalking . . . is happening to children of all ages," warns Alexis Moore, founder of Survivors in Action and author of A Parent’s Guide to Cyberstalking and Cyberbullying. The Canadian Public Health Association surveyed 2,500 students and 800 parents and found that one in eight Canadian students experience electronic bullying, whether on social media, chat rooms or via email or instant messaging. The number could actually be much higher, since some bullying goes unreported. This bullying can affect everything from the child’s school performance to their emotional health.

"I recommend that parents act quickly in confronting the bullying," advises Thomas Jacobs, former assistant attorney general in Arizona and author of Teen Cyberbullying Investigated. "A message to the bully and/or bully’s parents may put a stop to it." He recommends a brief call or message to indicate that you’re aware of what’s happening and want it to stop, but advises against accusations over who said what or who started it. "Then, if necessary, contact the cell phone provider, the social network, etc.," Jacobs says.

Monitoring computer media

Keeping tabs on what your children are watching, reading and doing can be as simple as knowing where to put the family computer. "One popular tactic," says Robert Siciliano, a McAfee security consultant, "has been to set up the computer in a high-traffic family area." He says that this is a good idea, but it may be less feasible if your children have smartphones or laptops.

In such cases, or if you’re simply too busy to always observe your children when they’re on the computer, computer monitoring software can be helpful. For example, Focus on the Family Canada has recently partnered with Net Nanny to offer parents a way to conveniently track and filter content, whether it’s movies, photos or social media interactions.

Keep communication open

In the end, regularly talking with your child about the Internet – thus keeping those lines of communication open – is critical. "The first line of defence is your own child’s ability to know when something just does not seem right and he gets an upsetting feeling," says Julia Simens, a clinical psychologist specializing in child, adolescent and family therapy. "He knows his own emotions and feelings so he can inform you if he feels gross, uncomfortable or nervous when he is online. Your child needs to know who to talk to if he or she is worried."

Reference to the individuals quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organization.

Additional resources

Supplementary article: Top eight expert tips on Internet safety

© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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