As a parent myself and an information technology professional I am very worried by the many dangers associated with children and their activity on the internet. The internet is such a powerful and empowering tool and I think learning how to use it is a very important part of a child's education. Then come the many stories of cyber bullying, human trafficking, child pornography and so many other activities that specifically target and victimise children. I'm not even talking about the content children might see online! That is a different topic all together and I think that could be an article on its own.
Just like the physical security measures you might have in place to protect your children from criminals or criminal activity, protecting them from criminals on the internet is extremely important. Not having some measures in place, apart from preventing them from using the internet at all, would be naive.
In order to stop a threat I think it is important to understand it. I see a lot of my friends and family members, those who have children and those who don't, go through their lives online totally oblivious to all the dangers they themselves might be exposed to, nevermind their children! There seems to be very little awareness about cyber crime until we read a story about something tragic that has already happened and that probably could have been prevented.
Let's look some of the major threats to children online and then we can deal with how to stop this type of thing from happening:
- Human Trafficking
According to Freedom United 40.3 million people are in slavery worldwide and 71% of human trafficking victims are female. You can read more about this problem on their web site. Where does the internet come into all of this? The internet is used by human traffickers to lure people with a promise of a job, friendship or any other premise for a physical meeting where the victim is then abducted and sold into slavery of some kind. Sometimes victims are even enticed to leave their country of residence by themselves.
- Child Pornography
Children are befriended by child pornographers often posing as members of the opposite sex of the same age. Using social media and other online communication channels has become an everyday activity for many of us, so the idea of your child talking to someone on a digital platform is in itself not the problem. Verifying who you are talking to is important. The offender in this case will ask the child to send revealing photos of a sexual nature and then distribute that material to people who are into such perversion. The victimisation can then be increased by blackmailing the child into sending more and more material with the threat of exposure and humiliation.
- Cyber Bullying
This is another example of something that we usually associate with a physical act that now happens online as well. Children are now targeting each other with online attacks. Cyber bullying can take many forms and can include humiliation, spreading of false rumours and false friendship. In the case of a false friendship a bully will contact a child in a private communication channel and feign a desire to be their friend. Once the child then trusts this new "friend" the bully will divulge personal information about the victim to other people.
- Recruiting for Terrorism
Several terrorist and other extreme organisations have found their new home on the internet. These organisations are shunned in other public spaces and might even be illegal where you live, but the internet gives them a place to hide and spread their particular views. Apart from publishing content online many of these organisations actively seek out and befriend vulnerable children via digital communication channels. What starts out as an innocent conversation about an online game, or some other interest your child might have can be turned on to any other topic. Most adults find it difficult to distinguish between facts and propaganda, so convincing a child or a young adult of some far-fetched or convoluted ideology is often much easier than you might think.
- Sexual Assault
In much the same way as a child pornographer operates sexual predators will befriend children online by pretending to be of the opposite sex and of an appropriate age. The sexual predator takes one further step and entices the child to a physical meeting where the child is then abducted and assaulted, and worse.
This one is often the subject of jokes or funny tales told around a dinner table. I have certainly heard the same story told more than once of a child asked or instructed to divulge the personal details of their parents or guardians. This can include credit card details, alarm system codes and security passwords for private security companies, safe codes and so on.
Once again the child is befriended, then lured to a physical meeting and robbed. This can also be an online theft. Computer viruses can be distributed to your child by a "friend" to gain access to data stored on you or your child's devices.
So now we have some idea what the dangers are we can address the risks. Here are some tips to keep your children safe online:
- Talk to your children
Explain your concerns to your kids. Make sure they understand that there are real risks when using the internet. They have to understand why you are going to be nosy, and you should be. Ask them who they are talking to online and try to verify that.
- Take control of their devices
You do not have to invade your children's privacy to do this. There are some phone apps you can use to control the applications they install and make sure their devices have an anti-virus application on them. Here is an informative article and a list of applications for your phone.
If your children use laptops you can find similar applications here.
- Set the example
Children will do what you do, not what you say. Don't confuse your children by forcing them to install security applications and then not do it yourself. Show them how you avoid online risks and make sure they know you are following the rules you set for them.