Protect your Child from Lurking Web Risks

Home Tech Protect your Child from Lurking Web Risks

The popularity of the Internet proves our need to make connections. Technologies that facilitated communication have always been popular, but nothing has ever compared to the way the Web reshaped our world into a nearly homogeneous entity that consumed information at lightning speed. That the globe has become so much smaller is largely due to the technology that has allowed billions of people to exchange messages, conduct business, and establish relationships.

When the Internet was first introduced to the public, its only purpose was to facilitate sharing of information among those who had computers and dial-up connections. In recent years, improvements in infrastructure have resulted in faster connectivity, and people began to access a larger variety of websites and digital content. Music, movies, and electronic books (“e-books”) are among the most popular content that the online public downloaded from the Internet. Social networking, search engines, and file sharing sites also benefited countless of people and organizations, as these provided channels for distributing knowledge.

Collaborative knowledge sharing and distribution

Collaborative knowledge sharing became one of the norms on the Web. Wikipedia, which is one of the most popular sources of research about practically anything or anyone, is a product of “crowdsourcing” content through a technology that allowed anybody on the Internet to contribute information about any particular subject.

YouTube, the most popular video sharing site on the Web, also contains a variety of tutorials, from technology, to music, to do-it-yourself projects. It allowed both professionals and amateurs to share to the public what they know in an almost freewheeling manner. Another site that is very similar to YouTube is Scribd, a popular document-sharing site, which provides a plethora of documents, slide show presentations, and electronic books free. It was only recently that it opened an online store for e-book distribution.

While free content on the Web has benefited so many, it is still advisable for everyone to take all these so-called knowledge—much like everything else that is floating on the Internet—with a grain of salt.  The ease of sharing and saving information from the Internet has paved the way for a lot of wrong information to propagate like viruses, on one hand, and made the age-old tradition of knowledge verification so passé that students hardly think twice anymore about what they “google,” on the other.

Plagiarism becomes the norm

The pressure put on Asian schoolchildren to excel academically has resulted in their being saddled with too much school work. Combined with decreasing supervision by their working, mostly upwardly mobile parents, the pressure to do well contributed to acceptance of certain ways of getting ahead at school, e.g., plagiarism.  Besides copying Math computations and Science experiment results, students have resorted to copying and pasting text they found on the Web to finish other homework and term papers. Now, teachers have to be extra-vigilant against this practice, which, if  it goes unchecked, will result in long-term tendency to turn in someone else’s work as one’s own, or taking a piece of information as truth without verification.

When online social networks become fatal

In the morning of October 17, 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself after being bullied on the social networking site, Myspace.com.  The teenager’ tragic story began with her friendship with Josh Evans, an attractive 16-year-old from O’Fallon, Missouri, a town next to where her family lived. They formed a seemingly close friendship although they never spoke nor met in person; Evan’s excuse for not having another communication channel except through online was that his family had just moved and did not have a home phone yet. Even so, Megan’s family observed that exchanging personal messages with Josh seemed to have lifted her spirits. Prior to meeting Evans, Meier was already diagnosed as clinically depressed and was taking anti-depressants.

After a few weeks of exchanging messages on the popular social network, Megan’s troubles began.  Josh sent a message that took her by surprise: “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends.” Megan responded to Josh, but the boy copied her replies to other girls at school who were also on the social network.  A vicious online attack on the teenager ensued until it all became too much for the girl.

Before Megan took her own life, she had an argument with her mother who reprimanded her for not getting offline. That argument was the last time that mother and daughter would speak to each other. As Megan’s mother prepared meal for the family, Megan ran upstairs to hang herself on her closet.

Six weeks after Megan’s death, her parents found out that Josh was a fake profile created by her former friend’s mother who lived just four doors down their street. Lori Drew, then 47, posed as Josh Evans, and together with her daughter and an 18-year-old employee, exchanged messages with the victim because she believed that Megan was spreading rumors about her daughter.

Meier’s death became a landmark case in the United States because there were no laws that existed against cyber-bullying, particularly in this case, where it turned lethal.  And because MySpace’s offices were located in California and the Meiers lived in Missouri, state laws about improper use of networks to cause emotional and psychological harm on another did not apply on Lori Drew. It took months for prosecutors to file a case against the single mother, but finally, on May 15, 2008, a federal grand jury indicted Lori Drew on one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress.ii

Trolls, phishers, and sexual predators

The deadly cyber-bullying of Megan Meier is just one of the many dangers lurking behind the pages of social networking sites—sexual predators, phishers iii, trollsiv , are few of the most common examples of unwanted characters that have propagated on the Web. And if going online under the roof of one’s parents is already potentially dangerous, imagine what other troubles await the clueless kid who befriends faceless strangers online when they log on the Web at internet cafes, unseen and unsupervised by their parents.

Within any given square kilometer of Metro Manila alone, there must be half a dozen internet cafes that have children and teenagers as target patrons. The popularity of network gaming and social networks, such as Friendster and Multiply, are the main reasons why kids go online, so much so that it has become safe to assume that instead of devoting hours to homework, they instead spend time on online distractions.

In Manila, Makati, and Naga, city ordinances were implemented to ban children from internet cafes during school hours. It is not clear how effective these measures are, but such ordinances are a step in the right direction.

Preying on the young

Online predators are always around, waiting for the right victim to log on. They befriend unassuming children, talk about school and friends, or affect interest in the same TV program, music, or movies. They pretend to be teenagers or kids from nearby schools, “phishing” for offline information about their targets, such as real names, phone numbers, addresses, schools, and extra-curricular activities.  In some cases, these predators ask their victims to meet them in person.

A survey conducted by the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration among 10,800 children age 13 to 18 showed that 12 percent of those surveyed have agreed to meet in person those they first met online, while 45 percent have given those they met online personal information. Twenty-three percent have sent photos to someone they only met on the web.

Having offline information about their targets is very handy for online predators, as their main objective is to reach these children in person. Knowing their targets’ whereabouts are a chance to stalk them or lie in wait as the kids come home from school.

It is well and good to have an adult watch over your kids. Unfortunately, some children go by without adult supervision, or worse, the weakest links are sometimes the adults themselves—the clueless nannies who hardly know how to fend off potential attackers. So how should parents protect their children from such unwanted characters?  •

SIDEBAR

Protecting your children against the dangers of the Web

Parents must always be involved in their children’s online activities, whether their kids access the Web to send instant messages and e-mails, play online games, or participate in social networking among their peers.

Your kids must secure your permission first before creating profiles on any website. While most social networks require new members to declare their age, there is no way for social networking sites to verify the declared birth dates of new signees. A 13-year-old might as well pretend to be 18 in order to access adult content anywhere on the Web. In this scenario, parents are advised to keep a close tab on the sites where their children register for memberships.

 Make sure that you know your children’s online friends.  Watch closely who your children interact with online, and verify as much as you can if their online profiles are real. Ask if these friends go to the same school as your kids, or if there is an offline contact information where you can call to find out if they are not another Josh Evans.

 Set rules for accessing the Internet. “My teenage son is not allowed to visit pornography sites,” says Marianne Siquijor about her rules on using the Internet she imposes on her 16-year-old son. “If he steps out of line, he is grounded.” Talk to your children to lay down your rules for accessing the Internet. As a parent, it is your duty to make them understand that these rules, which may seem too limiting at times, are there for their good and their safety. It is important that your children understand and appreciate the guidelines that you put in place, and most children do.

 Be your own network administrator and block sites that are inappropriate for your children. Gambling and pornography sites, as well as chat rooms, are the most common playgrounds of phishers, trolls, and online predators. Antivirus software nowadays also come with firewalls and features that prevent installation of malicious applications.

“In addition to the Internet rules, I installed security software on the family’s computer,” said Marianne. On top of preventing viruses from reaching your hard drive, you can also set up your antivirus software to block certain sites and spam e-mails from loading on your computer. To make sure that your kids do not work around the security filters, make sure that their computer accounts are either “member” or “guest,” and not administrator in order to prevent them from installing additional software or changing your computer’s settings.

Set schedules for using the computer or going online. The ideal schedules for going online are those times when you are at home and are available to monitor your child’s online activities or answer questions your child might have about people that they exchange messages with online.

  1. Crowdsourcing, a play on the words outsourcing and crowd, is a practice of harnessing the collective knowledge of crowds, mostly composed of amateurs. The term was first coined by author Jeff Howe, in his June 2006 article on Wired magazine, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.”  In the case of Wikipedia, crowds create, contribute, edit, validate, or discuss information for free. This nearly free-wheeling sharing and modification of information does not guarantee that all knowledge found in the site are accurate, however, much of the online public still use it as source of information.
  2. Mom indicted in MySpace suicide case. MSNBC, August 15, 2008. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24652422.
  3. Phishing refers to fraudulently acquiring personal information, such as names, bank accounts, contact details, addresses, user name and passwords, among others.
  4. Trolls are individuals who post inflammatory or irrelevant messages in online forums and chat rooms to provoke others to respond angrily.

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