A large part of my work involves using computer programs to manipulate data with statistics. One would therefore expect that I am well-versed in the use of the computer. As I discovered recently, that is far from the truth. I recently attended a speech on internet safety in our community given by a police officer from another part of the state. He became involved in the issue of internet safety after working on a kidnapping in which the victim communicated with the suspect via her computer. He spoke to a room full of parents, and by the time we left, we were all shaken. How quickly the worries of childhood, with scraped knees and hurt feelings, evolve into worries in which the very lives and well-being of our children are at stake.
He began by asking the parents whether we knew of several “apps” that our children might be be using. Many were new to me, from “Ask FM,”  where young people post questions and write often abusive or bullying responses to others’ questions. This is the app on which some young girls post pictures of themselves asking “am I pretty?” I was horrified to learn of such activity, and hoped that my beautiful daughter would keep away from such a platform. I also learned apps that allow the sharing of pictures that immediately disappear; called “Snapchat” and “Poke." Our speaker described these as ideal places on which to post inappropriate pictures. I also learned of an app called “Kik”  and was told that the average age of people on that seemingly teen-friendly site is 42 years old. The officer spoke of one girl who is on Instagram who seems to be “friends” with many teens this officer has met; she is from central Ohio and somehow knows someone (or many people) in every group he speaks to. He suggested that we should encourage our children not become internet “friends” with anyone they have not met in the real world.
Perhaps the most frightening thing I heard that evening was how easy it is to find someone from a picture that is posted on the web. It seems that there is digital information embedded in each photo that gives GPS coordinates describing where the picture was taken. He showed an example of a picture that was easily traced by a fellow officer in only a few minutes. Almost instantly, GPS coordinates were available, and with those coordinates, one could instantly find an address and even a picture of a house from which the photo originated. Knowing that my daughter has been instructed to never share her address or other personal information with strangers, I was surprised at how quickly such information could be extracted from seemingly innocent pictures. I wanted to make sure that my daughter did not post any pictures of herself, but I soon learned that innocent pictures were the least of my worries.
It seems that teens (and candidates for mayor of New York City) are sending inappropriate pictures of themselves and others in a process known as “sexting”. This process, which, for young people, might more appropriately be called “child pornography,” carries with potential for serious prison time. The officer suggested that if a child receives such an unsolicited photo, they delete it immediately and then tell an adult.
He also noted that there are many contracts between parents and children that are available. He suggested finding one that seems appropriate and signing it with our child. His overall advice was the “grandmother test”; ask your child if would what they are sending via the internet is something they would be proud to have their grandmother see. He also suggested instituting a “freeze policy.” If a parent comes into a room and is worried about what is on the computer, the child is expected to freeze immediately, with no time to change or minimize what is on their screen. He also suggested assembling a group of other adults that could serve as a first line of advice for issues that a child is not comfortable bringing to their parents. The other adult would then advise the child about how to get appropriate help for their problem, which would probably involve telling their parents.
I received a lot of good information that evening, but also left a little less naïve. And so I ask my readers, what do you do to make sure your children’s time on the internet is safe?