Six myths about keeping kids safe online

By Lori Bongiorno

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Keeping kids safe online may not seem easy, especially because today's parents didn't grow up immersed in the technology that our kids are exposed to early on. But regularly talking to your kids about what they're doing on the Web, how they play online games, and when they use mobile phones can go a long way towards teaching them how to act responsibly and safely.

Try not to get caught up in all the hype that can surround the online world and focus instead on what really matters. Below are the facts behind common myths from child safety expert Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, adapted from CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Digital Kids in the World of Texting, Gaming and Social Media.

Myth: Predators typically track down kids in real life from their addresses online.

Fact: Studies have shown that predators are not where our kids tend to be online and usually don't have the technologic capabilities to find our kids from their online addresses. In fact, our views about how predators use the Internet in general have been found to be myths. The Internet Safety Technical Task force found that kids are not as vulnerable to sexual predation as many have feared and they face a greater risk from cyberbullies than predators.

The Crimes Against Children Research Center says the arrests of online predators make up a tiny proportion of arrests for sex crimes against children - about 1% of all arrest for nonforcible sex crimes against actual minors and 2% of nonforcible sex crimes against 13- to 17-year-olds (pdf).

Myth: All online discussions with strangers are dangerous.

Fact: Think about all the strangers we meet every day offline. We chat with and accept help from grocery clerks, police officers, firefighters, department store clerks, and doctors to name a few! By observing our behavior with these people, our children learn that it's OK to interact with these types of strangers, and when they become more independent they'll understand how to negotiate these social norms, whether in person, by phone, or online.

So let's not panic when our kids have the occasional conversation with a peer they don't know too well. Likely the purpose is innocent, such as homework help, and the contact is someone they may know, at least by icon, which is no different than our own buddy list! The key is helping our kids understand how to build a safe buddy list, to keep their information private, to not meet their online friends offline, and to help them have appropriate limits with their online time.

Myth: Handheld gaming devices don't connect to the Internet.

Fact: The vast majority of today's handheld gaming systems, such as the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, connect to the Internet by Wi-Fi. This means that our kids can connect to the net and communicate with others by chats set up through the games. Once on the Internet via any channel, our kids have access to the entire World Wide Web.

Myth: Every kid should have a cell phone.

Fact: When considering a first cell phone for any child, the phone's purpose is essential. Are you considering a phone because every other child has a phone, or is there a greater need such as a medical condition? The cell phone landscape is complicated today by cyberbullyingand sexting. If you do not feel your child is old enough to discuss and understand these issues, your child is not old enough for a cell phone.

Try and match the phone with the needs of your child. You can still get phones that just call, which is very appropriate for younger kids. And there are phones tailored for young kids that you can program with just a few numbers. Keep in mind that most cell phone carriers now have parent-control features so you can restrict your child from accessing content and features that the phone may come with, such as the Internet or video and music downloads.

Myth: Social networking is inherently dangerous.

Fact: Social networking can be safe and often is, if done thoughtfully, age-appropriately, and with a conscious following of stated age limits and privacy rules. Social networking becomes unsafe when parents allow tweens on sites not meant for tweens, such as Facebook or MySpace, and when parents are so uninvolved that young teens do not know how to manage their privacy settings or digital footprint.

Social networking lets kids socialize with each other as peers. Kids don't have the offline space we used to have with our peers so online has become their peer "corner store" hangout. Social networking can help teens express their creative sides, get involved in causes at school that are empowering, and feel connected to their community and want to be involved.

Myth: The reason kids use headsets is to totally immerse themselves in a game.

Fact: The best way to learn what your kids are listening to is to listen with them! You'll be surprised by the lyrics of songs and phrases in games. Many times when kids look like they are "listening" to a game, they have a very different soundtrack running, so pop an earbud in once in a while.

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