Predators Online – Are Our Children Safe?

Big news outlets love to cover fantastically scary stories about internet predators and privacy issues, and these stories are becoming more and more popular. Parents worrying about their children may be concerned about these stories, but not know what to do. Keeping your children offline is a drastic and unnecessary step, but it almost seems like the only way to prevent the bad things that can happen online. Thankfully, there’s really no need to take that radical of a step to protect your children. Let’s address some of the potential privacy issues that face families and children online, and talk about ways to keep your children safe.

The first step to understanding how to keep your children safe is understanding what the potential dangers are. We’ve practically all heard stories of people who have been stalked by online predators, who were able to track them down using their personal information that was publically available online. Fortunately, most of us will never come close to one of these predators. However, these are the ultimate threat from which we need to be protecting ourselves and our children.

Essentially, the potential damage that these predators can do is limited by the information that they can obtain about you or your child. Stopping them, therefore, falls into two different categories – 1) limiting the amount of information we (or our children) publish online, and 2) limiting who can see that information. Each of these are, in a way, dependent on the other. For instance, your children can publish more information about themselves, provided that they keep it locked down and only accessible to select friends. They can also allow their information to be completely public, so long as they do not publish anything too personal.

So far, we’ve talked purely in theoretical terms. Now we’re going to try to apply these to a more real life situation to try to make them a bit easier to understand. Realistically, when we talk about putting personal information online, we are talking about social networks – Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, to name a few. Exactly what kind of personal information your children can be putting online really depends on the network.

For instance, even though Facebook is considered to be a place to put personal information, it is fairly open and public in nature. How you let your children treat Facebook depends – if they want to friend lots of different people and have a very public page, then they need to be reserved in what kind of information they publish – no contact information, for instance – people can contact them on Facebook, and they can give out phone numbers or addresses on a personal, as needed basis. If they want to put lots of information on their Facebook profile, then they need to make sure that they have thoroughly set all of their privacy settings so that unwanted persons cannot see it, and they should only be friends with close, personal, real-life friends. Facebook has a bad reputation within the tech media community, because their privacy controls are complicated, and they frequently change them and default people to more public settings. Because of this, it may be advisable simply not to put personal information on Facebook at all, and then not have to worry about it. If your children do, make sure that both they and you are diligently keeping up with the privacy settings.

Twitter, on the other hand, provides an experience that is inherently designed to be public. While you can have your “tweets” set to be private, the default is public. Make sure that your children understand the implications of a fundamentally public network – no private data (for instance, location) should ever be published. However, going in to the network with the expectation of publicness means that you are much less likely to put sensitive data on the network.

Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your children is to have an open line of communication between you and them. Keep up with what they are doing online, and make sure that they know what is acceptable to do and what isn’t. Also, make sure that they know they can talk to you if they ever have concerns or have problems with a potential stalker. Keeping private information out of the hands of internet predators is the best step for stopping them from getting to your children.