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Internet Safety Rules: Help Teens Stay Safe Online

I often compare the increased use of digital tools as a train. It’s your choice whether it will run you over, pass you by or whether you will jump on board.

But make no mistake: your teenagers are ON the train, waving to you as they speed past. Unless they are too busy on their phones to notice.

Here are my top 3 tips to help teens stay safe online. You could say these are the very least you should be doing in your home (and you could do a lot more).

3 Internet Safety Tips

1. What is “online”?

Managing your teenager’s online safety is no different than managing any other potentially harmful activity. Yet, parents may be lulled into complacency and a misplaced sense of safety because playing on the iPad seems harmless.

Online may not mean what you think it means (Princess Bride anyone?). Your teens are online when they are on their laptops, phones, and tablets – that’s an obvious one. But online also includes Xbox Live, Nintendo DSi, ITouch, and some digital cameras. The easiest way to think of it is this: if your child’s device is able to access the Internet via its own signal (i.e. phone signal) or WIFI, then there is an inherent risk to its usage when unsupervised.

Any incoming signal can mean unrestricted access – that you’ve opened up the windows in your home and invited the whole world into your daughter’s bedroom.

Bottom line: Become educated as to how, why, where, when, and with whom your children connect in every iteration of online. Ask them over, and over again. And then ask them again.

2. Understand the consequences of sexting

Incidences of sexting are escalating and accelerating with no apparent end in sight. New social platforms like Instagram and SnapChat are making it easier and easier for kids to take and share sexually revealing photos.

Here’s an all too typical scenario. “Suzie” is in her bedroom playing on her iPad. She is 14 years old and a boy that she likes is at a sleepover with his buddies. The boy, “Tommy” texts her and asks her to go to the movies. Suzie can’t believe her luck and while she’s texting back and forth with Tommy, he begs Suzie for a sexy photo  – maybe a boob shot? Suzie sends him the photo via SnapChat because she sees no harm since SnapChat photos disappear within seconds. Tommy receives the SnapChat, his buddies start howling and congratulating him. Then he pulls the photo off his phone’s hard drive and sends it to everyone he knows (because SnapChat photos do NOT disappear and most kids know how to grab the photos). By the time Suzie gets to school, the entire student body has seen the photo.

Beyond Suzie’s profound humiliation, Suzie has committed a crime. She can be charged with creation of child pornography for taking photos of her own breasts, and distribution of child pornography for sending it to Tommy. In addition, Tommy can be charged with possession and distribution of child pornography and listed on the national sexual predator registry.

This is the part that our teens do not understand. And the consequences can be life altering. I have personally seen college acceptances reversed and college scholarships revoked. These are actual crimes. And it’s happening every day.

Bottom Line: Here’s the message to your children – Any activity that begins with unzipping your pants or lifting up your shirt should give you pause, because the next step might just be the one that lands you in jail, regardless of your age.

3. Trust but verify

Internet Safety issues fall into three categories: perpetrator, victim, or bystander. You may think, “Not my child,” but most teenager’s will likely be involved in some incident in one of these roles. Many times, the teenager doesn’t even understand that his or her actions fall within one category.

Becoming educated is your only way to the other side of this issue. You need to understand which platforms are based on a reciprocal connection (i.e. Facebook – to be friends you must mutually agree) and which platforms are not reciprocal: where the people you follow are not necessarily the people who follow you (i.e. Twitter and Instagram). The latter is the far more dangerous scenario.

Parents must become well versed in the privacy settings of all your child’s devices AND platforms. Create your own acceptable use contract for your home and put it near the computer.

Here’s my rule: If I find any provocative photos sent or received by my son or daughter, I will smash their devices with a hammer, and then frame the photo in question to be given as a gift to their grandmother during Thanksgiving dinner. Seriously, it’s in the contract.

Bottom Line: Trust that your teens will do the right thing, and then verify that it’s happening as it should. Make your consequences abundantly clear.

Jesse Weinberger is a social media strategist and owner of OvernightGeek University. She has been teaching Internet Safety to students, parents, teachers, and administrators for over 10 years.

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