Tips to Keep Teens Safe Online

by Rajashri on Jul 13 2008 12:05 PM

Parents must be aware that although the internet is valuable in helping research, it does have some risks as well.

There often are highly publicized examples of teen exploitation secondary to Internet use, but these are usually extreme cases and not the norm. The negative experiences associated with Internet use should not deter teens from using this resource; however, negative experiences should serve as warnings of situations to avoid while on-line, says Katie Plax, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine and director of the Adolescent Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Plax offers a few Internet safety concerns:

Privacy—Teens may inadvertently reveal personal identifying information while in chat rooms or when attempting to gain access to certain Web sites that require registration prior to use. They may also give out credit card information on unsecured sites when making purchases.

Cyber-bullying—Teens may be harassed, threatened, embarrassed or have rumors spread about them via email, chat rooms or Internet Web pages.

Social isolation—Teens spending excessive amounts of time on the Internet may have limited interaction with family and friends. This may lead to underdeveloped face-to-face communication skills.

Solicitation/exposure to inappropriate material—Teens may be exposed to sexually explicit, violent and antisocial information on the Internet. For example, some Web sites promote eating disorders; the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs; teach hate; or provide instruction on how to build bombs. Seventy percent of adolescents age 15 – 17 said they unintentionally encountered pornography while surfing the Web. Teens also may receive sexual solicitation while in chat rooms; 20 percent of adolescents receive at least one sexual solicitation per year while online.

Physical endangerment—Teens, especially females, are the most targeted by child predators. Teens sharing personal information or agreeing to meet someone in person they encounter on-line may result in abduction, physical and/or sexual abuse.

Keeping teens safe online

“Keeping teens safe on-line takes a collective effort by parents, educational providers and health care providers,” Plax says. “Parents who are not familiar with computers and using the Internet should be encouraged to become more familiar with them.”

Some tactics parents may use to help keep their teens safe online include:

  • establish clear rules for Internet use and develop an Internet safety contract with their teen
  • keep the computer in a public place in the house
  • use an Internet filtering device to limit access to inappropriate sites
  • remind teens that the Internet is a public place and to keep their identity private and not share personal information
  • instruct teens to never use their or their parents’ credit card on-line without permission
  • instruct teens to never arrange face-to-face meetings with a person they have met on-line
  • discourage teens from speaking rudely or spreading rumors about others on-line
  • encourage teens to speak with an adult if they encounter a Web site or have an experience on-line that makes them feel uncomfortable
  • establish an open line of communication with teens to discuss the activities they enjoy on-line and about the people they talk to or meet while on-line
“Overall, the Internet is a beneficial resource for adolescents,” Plax says. “However, it is important to remember there are no censors on the Internet. Any person, organization or company can create a Web site and distribute information, whether positive or negative.”

In 1998, the Child On-line Protection Act (COPA) was passed in an effort to reduce children and adolescents’ exposure to harmful material on the Internet. Although COPA and Internet filters are effective ways of decreasing teens’ exposure to inappropriate material on the Web, they have their limitations. With teens now accessing the Internet in so many different ways (e.g., cell phones, video consoles, PDAs) it is important to make them aware of the potential dangers and provide them with general guidelines for staying safe while online.