If you have followed the national news or even local news here in Baltimore over the past year, you will most likely be familiar with the name Jasmine Baker. Jasmine recently made the news when it was discovered that she had not arrived at school as she was supposed that day. In short, a parent’s worst nightmare! Their baby girl was gone and they were left with tons of unanswered questions. Where was Jasmine? Who was she with? And most importantly, was she safe?
Jasmine’s disappearance sparked a fire-storm both on social media and news outlets. Not only because she was a minor that seemingly disappeared during broad daylight in a residential neighborhood with lots of traffic. But also because of the details that surround the case. Jasmine, had apparently, had a history of communicating online with “strangers” most of them being men who lived in other states. This in itself is not a huge story, but the fact that Jasmine is only 12 and appeared to have complete unrestricted access to the internet with no adult guidance is troublesome to say the least.
Thankfully, in Jasmine’s story there is a happy ending. She has been located and is now safely at home. However so many of these stories do not have a happy ending. We, as parents, must do better to protect our children. We must educate not only our youth but ourselves as well. It is no longer acceptable to ignore the fact that the internet can be a very dangerous place. I think we can all agree that the internet is no longer used as just a means of researching and discovering information but rather is a powerhouse tool that is used to communicate and create connections all over the world. While this level of connection does have its benefits, there are risks as well. Those risks are compounded when you add a young impressionable child into the mix.
Remember when our parents used to tell us not to talk to strangers? Well today’s children have access to millions of “strangers” on the internet everyday. So what is a parent to do? Well first, don’t go cancelling your internet service just yet 😉 The most critical thing is to be involved! It is unrealistic to think that you will know everything and everyone that your child speaks to on a daily basis. And you may drive yourself crazy trying. However the fact is that YOU are the parent and therefore should be setting boundaries regarding internet usage. That’s not to say that you are a horrible parent because your child snuck in a few You Tube videos without your knowledge but in general you should be aware of your child’s internet “footprint”. What accounts do they have? Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest? What are they posting and with whom are they interacting? What type of personal information is listed on their accounts? Address? Phone number? School information?
The next most critical step is education! Educate yourself and your child on the dangers they may encounter. Teach them rules for safe internet usage. For example,
1) In general, you should act on the internet as you would on the street. You would not walk down the street yelling your personal information and probably shouldn’t make it public on the internet as well. Do not supply anyone with your home address, school information, birth date, social security information, etc. The more information someone has about you the easier it will be for them to find you.
2) Do not share or post any inappropriate photos on the internet including by text or email. Again, if you wouldn’t do it in public, don’t put it on the internet.
3) Do NOT accept friend requests from people with whom you are not familiar. Regardless of who they say they know. Sex offenders will often portray themselves as a family friend in order to gain trust. When in doubt, check with Mom or Dad.
In addition to educating your child, educate yourself about parental control settings on the devices in your home. Parental controls can help you do things such as block specific websites and set time limits on your child’s internet access. With a few minor changes, the internet can be a wonderful place for your child to be entertained or learn about the world around them. A place that may even inspire them to pursue their dreams in the future.
It is my hope that this post will inspire an honest conversation between you and your child regarding safe internet usage. And remember it is never too early to teach these behaviors. It is common for children as young as 2 to have their own tablet or Wi-Fi enabled device. To learn more about this subject, read our post The Working Mom’s Guide to Internet Security.