“Don’t talk to strangers.” For generations, parents have given their children these words of caution.
Today, many parents aren’t sure how to extend that caution to their kids’ online activities, but it’s time to learn. Bullying has gone digital, moving from the schoolyard to the social networks. Malicious strangers, such as cyberstalkers and cyberbullies, may disguise themselves as friends, inject malware into computers and prove difficult to track down and defeat.
How can protective parents allow their children to enjoy the Internet, while instilling them with a sense of caution? And how can they monitor potential threats themselves?
A Common and Complex Problem
“Cyberstalking” generally refers to a pattern of threatening or malicious behaviors, and online predators fall into this camp. Children are often most vulnerable to cyberbullying; posting mean or hurtful comments or photos and spreading rumors online are the most common forms of abuse.
The statistics are grim. The US Department of Health and Safety’s Cyberbullying Research Center reports that 52 percent of teens surveyed have been bullied online. Worse, the same percentage declined to tell their parents when harassment occurred.
Even when parents do know, the ease with which abusers can change their online identities makes oversight and protection difficult. Online predators in particular “catfish” by establishing fake accounts where they may pretend to be younger (or even of a different gender). Fake pictures are used in an effort to establish romantic or social connections with minors.
Enforcement is Hard to Find
In the physical world, people who threaten or harass are subject to restraining orders and prosecution. Online the number of potential stalkers increases exponentially, and these people can be located anywhere in the world, far from local jurisdiction. Malware is an especially troubling threat. Once in your system, it can give a stalker access to your personal files, your address, and the locations where your children play.
Legal protections are still evolving, but enforcement is often difficult. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states have enacted laws to protect minors online. Sadly, much of this legislation has been passed in the wake of suicides by victims of cyberbullying.
Technology as a First Line of Defense
Where legislation and enforcement are lacking, technology can be your ally. Informed parents need the ability to monitor and protect their children. Software that pinpoints cyberstalking activity can quickly identify if someone is looking at your (or your children’s) profiles constantly.
Using advanced scanning and machine learning, it’s possible to identify malicious visitors— sexual predators, people using fake accounts, malware or online visitors who are having inappropriate conversations about drugs or explicit topics.
The right software can save parents time and heartache; and assist in the teaching of responsible online conduct.
No Replacement for Open Communication
Although the proper software provides assistance with effective and efficient monitoring, nothing is a substitute for honest communication with your child. The Cyberbullying Research Center found that 17 percent of children surveyed admit to online bullying of their peers—so both sides of the issue need addressing.
Fear of losing access to the Internet prevents many kids from telling their parents when something happens online. Encourage your children to be open in telling you when someone they don’t know tries to communicate with them, or they feel harassed or threatened online. Share news accounts to prompt a dialogue where you can discuss different online scenarios.
All parents want to protect their children, and that extends to the online world. Technological tools can help monitor what’s happening in their digital lives, and lead to conversations about right and wrong.
Ultimately, children can begin to take responsibility for their safety in the world, both online and off.
James C. Foster is the co-founder & CEO of ZeroFOX, a company that stands uniquely at the intersection of social media and cyber security, enabling organizations of all sizes to identify and prevent risk across the connected enterprise. ZeroFOX recently unveiled Operation CyberProtect, an initiative aimed at giving back to the non-profit community by providing free cybersecurity protection for U.S.-based non-profit organizations. Follow ZeroFox on Twitter (News - Alert) at @GetZeroFOX.
Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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