What You Should Know About Online Self-Defense
Starting with baby-proofing the house and moving smoothly into making kids aware of dangers so they can protect themselves, parents look out for their children's safety in age-appropriate ways. Some go a step further and enroll kids in self-defense classes so they know what to do in threatening situations. The same sequence makes sense online.
Because young children don't yet have the judgment to protect themselves, parents should "baby-proof" their interactive environment. Children younger than 6 should only use computer software that has been carefully selected by a parent. A list of 100 best programs for children is available from Children's Technology Review (http://childrenstech.com).
Early elementary school children need strict rules about what Web sites they can visit. Point your child to sites run by respected organizations such as PBS (http://pbskids.org), National Geographic (http://kids.nationalgeographic.com) or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org/explore). (For other ideas, browse the listings at http://kidsites.com.)
Children under 13 should engage in social networking only on sites that are monitored by adults. Older elementary children also benefit from a filter to keep them from inadvertently stumbling into spaces where they may be at risk. The simplest option is a family-friendly search engine. Even Google now has a safe search setting. To find it, go to the Google home page, look for search settings in top right corner, click on SafeSearch and select Lock SafeSearch. You will be prompted to sign into a Google account.
Although external controls are essential when children are young, eventually kids want — and need — more independence. Around the time kids first get a cell phone, parents should start teaching online self-defense skills to help them avoid threats when possible and respond effectively if they end up in difficult situations. Here are some martial arts principles that readily translate into cyberspace.
Project power. A good martial artist exudes an aura of confidence and strength that makes fighting unnecessary. Help your child develop a sense of worth and a community of genuine friends. Point out the differences between the close ties of face-to-face friendships and the loose ties of online relationships. Face-to-face friends will discount rumors and slurs because they know they aren't true. They stand up for each other and help each other solve problems. Being part of that kind of community gives kids the self-assurance that is an excellent defense against predators of all kinds.
Protect your core. In martial arts, the core includes the vital organs. Online, the core is private information that could be used to steal a child's identity, harm her reputation or put him in physical danger. Remind preteens to think carefully about posting information that could be used to embarrass them or that would help a potential stalker track their activities. Children should also learn from an early age that they should never share passwords, social security numbers or other identifiers with anyone — even a best friend.
Avoid provocation. Martial arts are called self-defense because they are used in response to others' aggression. Unfortunately, many young people initiate aggression online, sometimes without intending to provoke. In a misguided effort to impress their peers, young people can be flip, sarcastic and even cruel. Parents can help by talking about how to show respect when teasing or trying to be funny. Encourage children to think through what they say or write online from the point of view of others. For example, using "gay" may be painful to a peer who is struggling with questions of sexual identity.
Stay calm. In self-defense, you can't respond effectively to an attack if you're angry or flustered. Talk to children about how they would handle online harassment or bullying. Ask "what-if" questions to help them think through problems before they occur. What if someone posts something mean on your wall? What if someone sends a message pretending to be you? What if someone forwards a photo or message that was supposed to be private? Point out that sometimes the best response is to ignore remarks. An angry, emotional rebuttal is likely to escalate the problem because it can be circulated so easily. Be sure your child knows how to de-friend someone who doesn't deserve the label.
Warn your opponent. Sometimes online aggressors don't realize they've stepped over the line.
Peers, in particular, deserve a private warning that their behavior is hurtful. The Web site www.thatsnotcool.com suggests ways young people can deflect unacceptable online contact, especially from members of the opposite sex. Your child can also send the other person a private e-mail or text asking for a simple change in behavior. "Don't text me" or "Please delete the message you posted."
Respond. This is where online self-defense differs from martial arts. Instead of retaliating online, kids should take their concerns about online conflict into the real world where they can get advice from trusted adults. Parents make this more likely when they encourage children to come to them with things that make them uncomfortable online and don't overreact when they share their problems.
Teach kids to copy, save or print problematic messages, photos or videos, especially if they are threatening in any way. Help them contact the customer service department for the Web site or the ISP where the messages were posted. In some cases, the management may delete the offensive content or ban the person who posted them. Documentation is also likely to spur school officials and even the police to take action.
Much as we may want to protect our children, we do them a disservice if we try to insulate them from every risk. Instead, good parents gradually empower children to handle their own problems by teaching them to recognize, avoid and, when necessary, confront the bad guys. Then, instead of feeling like a victim, your child will experience all the confidence of a samurai who knows he or she can handle whatever life may bring.
Carolyn Jabs has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. More information is available at www.growing-up-online.com.