- Recognize possible safety risks of internet use by school-age children.
- Identify possible signs of cyberbullying.
- Create a plan to maintain a cybersafe environment.
The internet and technology have become a major part of our daily lives. They have broadened our ability to communicate with others. These tools also help us educate children in more creative ways than many of us could have ever imagined. School-age children have grown up with technology, and it is fully integrated into the lifestyles of many children. Many children in your program probably carry the internet with them on their portable devices.
The internet has become a space for powerful learning tools, positive socializing, and a chance to engage in public life. However, with these positive interactions come safety risks for school-age children. These risks include the dangers of cyberbullying (online harassment and bullying), sexual solicitation, predators, and exposure to inappropriate content. It is important to find effective ways to educate both ourselves and children about internet safety. The first step is to learn about the risks associated with the internet and technology.
With the rise of technology, bullying has become common through services like instant messaging, cell phones, email, and social networking sites. This type of bullying can include (but is not limited to) being threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed, or otherwise targeted by another child. Bullying of this type can easily spiral out of control with a message, rumor, or photo forwarded to a group of recipients.
The internet has also become a very easy way for child predators to communicate with children anonymously through instant messaging, message boards, social networking sites, cell phones, and message boards. An online predator can be anyone and may not fit into any profile. The process by which the predator acts inappropriately toward the children is called online grooming. This process involves an adult or adults preying on the vulnerabilities of children by offering gifts or attention, befriending them, and establishing an emotional connection over a period of time. Oftentimes, the child has been chatting or communicating with this person for a while and the predator gains their trust. They will offer the child attention and affection and take advantage of their natural curiosity about sex.
Exposure to Inappropriate Content
While children are using the internet at your program, they may be exposed to inappropriate material. This material could include sexually offensive or explicit language or pictures, violent material, or material that entices or encourages illegal activities. Inappropriate material can be accessed through Web browsing, shared in peer-to-peer networks, or sent by email or instant-messaging services. Inappropriate content may be potentially harmful or disturbing for children. This material may be accessed by accident. Sometimes just spelling a word incorrectly in a search engine or clicking on a link may bring them to an inappropriate site. When addressing this issue in your program, it is important to acknowledge that some families may consider some material inappropriate based on cultural values and standards. The child’s age also is an important factor.
There are many ways you can keep children safe on the internet.
You should also be aware of warning signs that a child is experiencing trouble. There are a few warning signs that can help you identify a child who is facing online victimization, through bullying, predatory interactions, or viewing inappropriate content.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a child may be a victim of cyberbullying if he or she:
- Unexpectedly stops using the computer
- Appears nervous or jumpy when an instant message, text message, or email appears
- Appears uneasy about going to school or outside in general
- Appears to be angry, depressed, or frustrated after using the computer
- Avoids discussions about what he or she is doing on the computer
- Becomes abnormally withdrawn from usual friends and family members
These warning signs may be true for other online victimization as well. Other signs to look for are: excessive use of the computer, secretive behavior around internet use, changing to another Web page when a staff member appears, or acting agitated, anxious or guilty when questioned about their online communications. Children also may begin to use adult or sexual language. They also may start to wear more revealing clothing or may become uncomfortable with their bodies. If you see these warning signs, maintain open communication with the child. Let them know that you trust and support them. Often the children feel guilty or ashamed, so make sure the children know you won't judge them, you just want them to be safe.
Create a Cybersafe Environment
As a child-development professional, you should develop internet safety guidelines for your school-age program. You can perform some simple steps to ensure cybersafety.
- Draw up an agreement: It is a good idea to establish online rules and safety guidelines with the children in your program. This can be an agreement that both of you sign, acknowledging the rules to internet usage. These rules should be posted above or around the computer station to remind children what they agreed to (see example in Apply section). It is a good idea to send a copy of the agreement home so the parents are aware of the expectations your program has for their children when using the computer at the program.
- Supervise computer use: The computers should be in an open area of the program space, allowing you to monitor the online activities. Additionally, comply with your program’s firewall and monitoring systems to ensure children’s safety online.
- Know the popular online activities: Be involved and regularly ask children about their online activities. Being aware of the child’s favorite sites will allow you to not only connect with the child but also help ensure that they are being safe.
- Inform children what personal information is and to never to give it out over the internet: Information children should be told to avoid giving out on the internet includes their name, address, telephone number, passwords, parents' names, the name of any club or team they are involved in at their school.
Report Problems or Concerns
Cyberbullying is becoming a prominent issue among children. Reporting early suspicions of cyberbullying has become increasingly important. Each state has laws and procedures that are important for you and your staff to be aware of. Additionally, if you suspect a child predator, notifying children’s parents as well as proper authorities is important. If you observe a child viewing inappropriate materials or content, it may be necessary to contact the child’s parents, depending on the material, or just a reminder to the child of the program policies and guidelines that they to agreed and signed.
Complete the Internet Safety activity below. Read the scenarios and answers the questions that follow. Share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Then compare your answers to the suggested responses key.
Use this Sample Internet Safety Contract to draw up your own. If you already have one for your program, compare yours to the example. Are there any things you would add or remove?
Use the short Checklist for Identifying Exemplary Uses of Technology and Interactive Media for Early Learning resource as you consider the type and frequency of media use in your program.
Sample Internet Safety Contract
Department of Education (ED), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Department of Justice (DOJ). (n.d.). Stopbullying.gov homepage. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.stopbullying.gov
Hinduja, Sameer & Patchin, Justin W. (2015, March). Cyberbullying warning signs. Cyberbullying Research Center. https://cyberbullying.org/cyberbullying-warning-signs.pdf https://cyberbullying.org/cyberbullying-warning-signs
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (n.d.). Netsmartz workshop: Parents and guardians. https://www.netsmartz.org