As I was reading Ars Technica this morning, I came across two stories that disturbed me. How pedophiles use Craigslist and sextortion over Facebook and it scares me. I don’t mean to single these two sites out. Nor are they the only places where danger can lurk on the internet. There is danger online as well as off. Just as children of the 80’s were taught about stranger danger, children of the 00’s need to be educated about online danger.
Telephones for the 21st Century
The internet is first and foremost a communications medium. We use it to talk to our friends. We use it to plan events. We use it to buy goods and services. We use it to find our way from point A to point B. We use it to get messages, check our bank accounts and get the news.
The internet has become as much as part of life as the television or the radio. This is why it scares me because so many people are ignorant to it and its dangers.
Before I go any further, I am not trying to say there is stranger danger lurking behind every corner. There are not pedophiles and rapists behind every sign post and in every dark alley.
But they do exist. Can you go through your entire life without being mugged or assaulted? Absolutely, you can. But all it takes is one bad decision to lead you to other bad decisions to end up somewhere you don’t want to be.
Bad choices come in sets
For instance, let’s take the guy extorting pictures of young girls through Facebook. The choice was made to talk to him. This is not a bad choice at the beginning. If we never talked to new people, we’d never make any new friends.
The bad choices started when the girls started messaging, which again, can be innocent enough. Sexuality and curiosity are a part of everyone’s lives. Asking questions and talking, again, is not in itself harmful.
Should they have talked to a stranger over the internet about it? Maybe, maybe not? The decision-making process could have gotten started for any number of reasons.
Once the conversations were in the hands of the extortionist, then the bad choices began. The girls wanted to keep their dignity and not be humiliated and not get in trouble.
Misery loves company
To avoid this, they made bad choices. They took photos of themselves (bad choice but if kept private or immediately deleted not damaging), they sent the photos (even worse choice because once something is out in the digital world, it never truly goes away) and they sent naked photos (of course, this is the worst choice).
Now, there are naked photos outside the control of those who sent them. They are out in the world. Maybe only on the hard drive or email account/messaging account of the recipient. Maybe he sent them to friends or posted them elsewhere. Once those photos left their phones, they are out of their control.
Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back
What you say online, stays online. There is no taking it back. Once something is created and sent out into the world, it can be duplicated countless times. It never really disappears.
Google is caching millions of pages and files per day for searching. The Wayback Machine is a living digital archive of the internet. The Library of Congress is going to archive every tweet sent using Twitter. These are just a few examples of archiving efforts going on in various forms to capture and store the billions of messages and files created everyday.
Ignorance is no longer bliss
My fear in all of this is because of my job I work with people and technology every day. I work with people who don’t get computers or don’t use the internet. This isn’t something they feel the need to know anything about or be able to use beyond the scope of their job.
This scares me because these are the people with children at home relying on them to help navigate the digital landscape. There are real dangers online just as there are in the physical world.
Just as a child can be taken from a shopping mall, they can be lured to a meeting with a friend online. Parents owe it to themselves to be able to teach their children how to spot danger and what to do about it.
If you don’t know how or where to start, ask your computer guy or gal. Turn to the person you go to for advice on what to buy or how to fix something. They may not be well-versed in the dangers of the online world but they can offer a few tips and send you in the right direction which is what I hope to do.
How to start
It is not enough to ban children from the internet. The internet is at home, on mobile phones and digital devices. It’s at friend’s houses and at school. It’s in community centers and public libraries.
It is not enough to ban or block usage, children will find a way around blocks or bans. Remember, they are most likely far more savvy than you are. They need to be educated about the dangers online.
Protect Kids is a great starting point. There is tons of information about internet dangers, safety rules and tools, social networking tips and reporting cyber crime. It’s a good starting point if you need to educate yourself or know someone who needs to educate their kids.
Enough is another fantastic resource for education about dangers online. I recommend everyone to take the short three question quiz. I got 3/3 correct but the answers may surprise you.
At the end of the quiz there is a pledge to sign recognizing that:
- Kids have free and easy access to pornography, either intentionally or accidentally;
- Predators and cyberbullies have easy and anonymous access to vulnerable kids;
- Kids are engaging in risky behavior via computers, cell phones, gaming systems and social networks; and
- Adults are often uninformed, ill-equipped and overwhelmed about how to deal with Internet dangers.
How well did you do?
Take some time to explore the site and think about the quiz and the pledge. Talk to your children about the dangers online and have them take the youth pledge.
Most importantly, make sure they know they can always come to you for anything. I know kids don’t always turn to their parents, even when they should. I sure didn’t all the time growing up.
But make sure your kids know they can come to you with things and they won’t get in trouble.
If the girls in the sextortion story had come to their parents, all of this could have been avoided. Did their parents do a great job raising them? Yes, they most likely did. Education can only take you so far. The rest is in the hands of your children to make those good decisions.
Kids are going to make mistakes. I did growing up. So did my parents and their parents and I know my kids will when I have them one day. Everyone makes mistakes, especially growing up. Help educate your children so they’re mistakes stay small and don’t turn into dangerous mistakes.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact me and I will do my best to help or point you in the right direction.
Photo courtesy of Capture Queen.