Internet safety is a major concern for many parents and guardians in the day and age of new technology. However, precaution is key when it comes to staying safe and staying ahead of problems, say local law enforcement and technology officials.
Washington Police Chief Jim Lester is an affiliate with the Iowa internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. He said his main job responsibilities on the task force are to handle crimes that deal with children. For this reason, he encourages parents to be aware of what their children are accessing online.
“I always say online safety starts with the parents. They need to know what their kids are doing online, whether they are monitoring what they are doing by having access to their accounts or by having standard bed time or night time charging stations for the devices,” he said.
Lester said he used to warn parents not to allow children to have computers in their bedrooms but now that cellphones are able to be taken anywhere, he encourages use of the devices only in places where parents can see what children are communicating. He said there are more than two billion users of social media and hundreds of millions of active websites that could pose safety risks.
John Grunwald, technology director for the Fairfield Community School District, said parental controls are one component that can prove to be useful. However, he said it can become a “cat and mouse” game because internet hackers are always one step ahead and can find loopholes into anything.
“The best controls are the parents’ eyes and mouths,” he said.
Grunwald said parents monitoring what their children are accessing and talking with their children about the dangers of speaking to strangers on the internet is key. This is a strategy they enact with students in the district, he said.
At Fairfield Community High School, all students are 1:1, meaning there is a laptop for each student. The district has programmed a variety of parental controls on the devices to ensure the students are using the devices for school related activities only.
Grunwald said there are specific apps that can be downloaded for phones, tablets and other devices as well if parents would like to set up their own monitoring systems. He said with a quick Google search, parents can find a variety of options that will meet their needs.
“The parents have a lot of control over that,” he said.
Another aspect of safety on the internet is keeping private information safe. When choosing a screen name, Lester warns people to be careful it does not include personal information. Instead of using a full name, he suggests using a nickname instead to ensure the user cannot be directly linked to the individual.
On social media sites, he said predators and cyber bullies are two of the most common problems. With predators, they tend to seek out children they can try to groom into an online relationship and build a trust.
“The biggest thing isn’t anything to do with technology, it’s communication. I encourage parents to have a technology talk with their kids covering the who, what, when, where and how,” he said.
Lester said it is important for parents to know who is on the internet, what they are doing, when, where and how they are accessing it. He said as the video game world becomes more and more popular, there are more risks involved.
“We always think of young females as the victims but we’re seeing more male victims on the gaming networks,” he said.
He said a common case is when a gamer gives their password and username to a friend to help them beat a level in a game. That friend now has access to their account and can change the password and take over their identity on the gaming network.
This is especially dangerous in cases of having credit cards linked to the accounts. The credit card is then in the control of whoever has the password for the account and charges can be wracked up easily.
Grunwald said another thing to keep in mind is to ensure the user is on a secure internet connection. He used the analogy that a secure connection is similar to a door on a house. If left unlocked, anyone can walk in and take whatever information they want.
He recommends people who are using home wifi ensure there it is password protected. If a neighbor or someone driving by is able to get into the wifi, they could then potentially hack into the homeowners personal information.
When using a public connection, as available at a library or cafe, he said the first step is to make sure the virus protection software on the device is up and running. He said most places will have systems in place to ensure the connection is not vulnerable and hackers cannot get into personal information but there is always a risk when using an unsecure network.
Cyber bullying is also on the rise, Lester said. The problem seems to be worse these days because with the internet, the problem can then follow the child home.
“It used to be you’d be bullied at school (but) you could go home and get away from it. With that social media now being used, they take it home with them and it’s there all the time,” he said.
Lester said although parents can reach out to the school, police or a counselor for help the best thing to do is eliminate the child’s access to the internet. He said with the use of social media, bullying tends to snowball faster because more people can get involved in the bullying.
To help students learn about the importance of privacy, Lester said, once again, communication is key. He said if students see something online that makes them uncomfortable, he would encourage them to report it to a parent and for parents to encourage that behavior as well.
“(Kids) should know five things about the people they’re talking to,” he said. “Their first name, their last name, their telephone number, their address and where they go to school. If they can’t go through their friends or follower list ... when they sit down with their parents, then they probably shouldn’t have them on there.”
He said oftentimes parents use technology as a threat against bad behavior but Lester warns against that. He said by creating an open encouraging forum for students to be willing and comfortable to talk with their parents they can help solve the issue.
Grunwald echoed this sentiment, saying being open, honest and transparent with kids is the best way to teach them about the dangers of the internet. Explaining to them why things are or are not appropriate is the best way to help them understand and learn to make these decisions for themselves, he said.
For parents seeking more information, Lester said the Washington Police Department does presentations often and suggests www.netsmartz.org as a free online resource. Grunwald recommends www.staysafeonline.org, consumer.gtc.gov and cisecurity.org as free resources.