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Learn Internet safety during this school year

By Linda Breazeale

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Students expand their skills and knowledge of the Internet every year, so parents need to increase their efforts to monitor their children's activity and help them use this technology in a safe manner.

Ted Gordon, a Mississippi State University Extension Service safety specialist at the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona, said parents should not only establish Internet rules, they should monitor its use.

“Unfortunately, a recent survey suggested that only half of the children questioned reported any rules or supervision for computer use,” Gordon said. “Parents should not have a false sense of security for their child just because the computer is considered an educational tool and is located in the home.”

Gordon recommended computers be located in a common area of the home rather than in a bedroom. Parents will know more accurately how much time is spent on the computer and what types of activities users are involved in. Install filters, blocking or rating system software on the computer to help prevent a child from receiving or viewing inappropriate materials.

“The growing popularity of instant messaging, profile sites and blogs can add to the Internet dangers for children,” he said.

Some basic rules that Gordon recommended to help protect children include:

  • Never provide personal information over the Internet, such as a home address, the name or location of their school, telephone number, personal photos or their parents' names. Be cautious when developing a Web site.
  • Remember that people online may not be who they say they are. Never agree to meet an online acquaintance without a parent's permission. Any such meeting should be in a public place and with the parent.
  • Choose a gender-neutral online name in a chat room to avoid harassment. Avoid chat rooms that discuss sex or cults. Be suspicious of people in chat rooms who try to discourage them away from family, friends, teachers or religion.
  • Never respond to messages or bulletin boards that are sexually obscene, threatening or that make the reader feel uncomfortable in any way.

“Anytime a child or parent encounters an online personality who makes them uncomfortable or causes concern, alert their Internet provider or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hotline at (800) 843-5678,” Gordon said. “Children who are naive or lonely tend to be common targets. Watch out if a child is getting on the computer during normal sleep hours or if there is unusual phone activity.”

Carla Stanford, child and family development area agent in Pontotoc County, said monitoring a child's Internet activity does not have to be intrusive. Parents should not give the impression they distrust the child, but they should let children know they will be monitored.

“Children may enjoy showing parents their favorite Web sites, chat rooms or games they play on the computer,” Stanford said. “Ask them who their most frequent Internet buddies are for instant messaging and e-mails. A quick change from what is on the computer screen when a parent enters the room could signal inappropriate activities. Don't over-react if your child reports a problem because they may be less likely to report future concerns.”

A growing problem that parents need to be aware of is “cyberbullies.” Much like the playground bullies which parents may remember, these individuals use the technology of the Internet to harass, intimidate, threaten and torment their victims.

Stanford said teenagers and young adults are the most common victims of cyberbullies.

“Cyberbullies are not only people who personally know their victims, sometimes they choose their targets from online profiles, Internet chat rooms or through a third party,” Stanford said. “Because the Internet can offer some degree of anonymity, bullies may be more vicious in their tactics. They may start rapidly spreading rumors about a person. The result could be the victim withdrawing from public settings such as school, clubs or church.”

Parents can help protect their children by keeping the lines of communication open so children feel comfortable reporting problems immediately. Teach good online habits to reduce risks from bullies. As with other family issues, the key is staying involved.

“Try not to add fuel to the fire by any sort of response back to the bully. If ignoring the situation does not work or is not appropriate, document and report the problem to the proper authorities, which could be the local police,” Stanford said.

Stanford encouraged all parents to become familiar with computers and Internet safety issues. Families can learn together, and this decreases risky behaviors.

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Released: July 13, 2006
Contact: Ted Gordon, (662) 566-2201 or Carla Stanford, (662) 489-3910

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