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Online Safety: What Are The Real Risks Parents Should Know?

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How much time have you really spent reading through the privacy policies and access permissions of every device and digital application you currently own or control, or allow your children access to? If you're like most, the answer is very little. The good news is that there are federal protections created under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) designed to keep your child's personal information safe and prevent apps or games from being able to ask for specific identifying information such as names, addresses, phone numbers, and other contact info. The bad news is, as parents there is still a great deal of oversight necessary to ensure that their information is indeed kept private, and outsiders aren't making contact with your child without your permission.
 
The most common issue affecting online child safety is inappropriate content. You may believe your child is only viewing an app or video that you have deemed acceptable, however in just a few taps of the screen or clicks of the mouse, they may be viewing graphic images, watching violent videos, or reading articles filled with hate speech and inflammatory language. Even previews for other games or programs may provide them with exposure to material that you would be less than comfortable with. It is vital to enable parental content restrictions, especially for your youngest users, and ensure that you're regularly checking up on their activity to confirm they are using their devices appropriately.
 
The second most concerning online safety issue is cyberbullying. The perpetrators of such actions are most often known peers, but it is also possible for unknown outsiders to become part of the problem if your child is using any program or app with a publicly viewable profile. Cyberbullying may occur via direct text, email or instant messages, or as part of social media postings. Much of the intent of the cyberbully is defamation and humiliation, though the cyberbully may also engage in more criminal behavior. StopBullying.gov has detailed information on the signs to look for if you believe your child may be a victim of cyberbullying. It is important to document any activity that you witness, and follow-up with your school and/or local law enforcement agency if these actions continue to persist.
 
Cyber predators are also a risk, and parents should have an understanding of the most common methods used in their attempts to victimize children. One of the most persistent means is through grooming, a drawn-out process where the predator will identify their "mark" and then take time through sustained online interactions to fish for more personal information about the child over time. Some predators do so by creating fictitious accounts, impersonating a younger child or of the opposite sex, however, others will maintain an identity as an older figure who claims to be there to assist them when others around them can't or won't. Cyber predators are adept at preying on a young child's emotions, and they will often attempt to create a sense of supposed trust and safety by professing empathy. 
 
Thanks to significant efforts by law enforcement to thwart the efforts of would-be cyber predators, the overall number of these crimes and criminals are decreasing. Here at the Riverside County Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement (SAFE)/Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, we are persistent in monitoring registered sex offenders to ensure registration compliance, and we work diligently to protect the children of our community through education, identification, apprehension and prosecution of those who commit internet crimes against children. Community members who are made aware of questionable or inappropriate online behavior should reach out to us promptly via one of the contact methods available on our Submit a Tip page.

The Famous Five 

Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube. These are the primary known social media mega-forces, and they are readily used for good – but at others, for evil. All of them provide access to written and digital content, and new users get to define their information-sharing settings. The default setting for many of these applications will create a new public profile, meaning all content would be viewable, accessible, and open for comments from any other user around the world, so you should carefully go through the initial setup stages to create profiles that prevent such openness. 
 
If your family has made a determination that your child is of an age where access to any of these apps would be permissible, take the time to go through the privacy settings thoroughly and make changes where appropriate. Periodically monitor for newly added friends or groups, and verify the identity of any of those who are unknown to you or otherwise appear questionable. Utilize the "block" function to prevent contact from anyone who appears to be a risk. You should also look through the chat functionality on these social media platforms, and make determinations about what instances, if any, it should enabled for.

The Next Generation 

New apps are constantly in development, and tech companies everywhere are pushing to become the next Facebook. There are a wide variety of programs our young ones are becoming well-versed in – from video making and sharing, to group text and chat – the landscape of social media programming is ever-evolving.  Parents should be aware that there are particular apps that allow text and chat functions, which allow the tech-savvy child to circumvent built-in text or phone monitoring. Programs such as Kik, WhatsApp, TextNow, Marco Polo and Houseparty all allow messaging opportunities that don't even require cell data for use. This means that even the child with an old iPod Touch, that is Wi-Fi enabled only, can download apps that provide them the ability to make calls or send texts that are virtually untraceable. 
 
Other online programs gaining in popularity are those that provide a sense of fun. As the saying goes, however, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt. TikTok allows the user to make and send lip-sync videos, view what others posted online, share them and post a comment. Twitch is also user-generated video content and streaming channels, mostly created and followed by the online gaming community. Of additional concern surrounding games, many of those with multiplayer capabilities such as Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite, provide exposure to the internet and potentially to unknown outsiders.  As these changing technologies continue to evolve, it's important as parents to stay abreast of this information as much as possible. Common Sense Media is a non-profit organization that continuously monitors the way our kids are using these new apps, and provides regular communication with tips and suggestions on how to manage social media usage within your family.
 
Online and internet access exists even beyond our computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. More and more homes now employ the use of a "smart home" device such as Amazon Echo or Google Home.  Besides providing basic helpful features such as alarms, timers, or access to music playlists, these devices make information readily available to us – and our kids. Parents should learn about the available privacy features, and methods of protecting your children, such as FreeTime for Amazon and Wellbeing for Google. Disable functions that may be problematic for your home, such as voice purchasing, and examine the phone capabilities to allow or disallow calling and "drop-ins."

Establishing Boundaries 

The best parental advice on internet safety is to make determinations about your allowable boundaries and stick to them. Make decisions that work for your family about online access time limits, allowed apps, and whom your child is permitted to have contact with. Talk to your kids about where else they may have access to computers or other smart devices that you might not be familiar with, such as in school libraries, or at a peer's house, and inquire about activity or behavior they may witness while online. Remind your children not to reveal personal details about themselves to anyone online, and encourage them to come to you if they are ever concerned about something they have read or seen. Truly, the greatest parental control function to employ is an ongoing dialogue and open communication with your kids about what their online time is really used for, and how they can go about it safely.