Two things happened last week that serve as reminder on the need to be careful and cautious when using the internet.
The first was a post on Facebook from a friend who caught her preteen son texting and talking on his cell phone with someone he had "met" through an online game. Her response was the same as mine would have been in a similar circumstance - cell phone taken away and online gaming privileges suspended for a time. It was a good thing, since her son continued to receive messages from this individual.
I was surprised by the response of one individual who chastised my friend for her response to the situation. She felt that the child was being punished for something he didn't realize was wrong. My friend's response was the best. She reiterated that she is his mother and as such it is her job to protect her children. A lesson has been given and hopefully learned so that behavior can change.
I too feel that it is my responsibility to protect my children from predators. Too often I have seen through my job that the "horror stories" are true. Online a predator can be anyone or any age they want to be. They are skilled at creating wedges between parents and children. Manipulation is their forte.
The second incident involved the owner of a online email group that I belong to. The owner sent an email to the group attaching a message she had received via her personal Facebook account. She stated that she did not have time to check out this individual who was asking for help from the group and was wondering if anyone else could. The message contained enough personal information to make it feel genuine, but she was concerned it was being sent to her personal account and not to the group.
A five minute Google Search of the individual was able to confirm every "fact" contained in the message along with even more personal information. I was also able to determine that this individual had contacted other groups asking for similar aid. All this information was openly available on the internet to anyone to learn. I was also able to provide her with a way this individual was able to identify her personally as the group owner in order to send a personal message.
I was reminded of a similar situation with a cousin who had been scammed by a caller who knew quite a bit of personal information about her. She was blaming it all on Facebook, but I was able to show her in the same type of Google search how all the information was able to be found without accessing Facebook.
In our house, we have established rules that are kept by the computer. Our children, even the teenagers, have agreed to abide by these rules. In order to have a Facebook account, my children were required to provide us with their login and password information, and to include us as their "friend." I have only used the password twice in 4 years to login to a child's account. Once was when a child was using the account inappropriately and the other was when a child's account had obviously been hacked. We have the same requirement for their personal email accounts and cell phones as well. Our computers are kept in public areas of the home where they can be monitored. Also, browsing history is routinely checked and monitored to see if it is regularly deleted (BIG RED FLAG).
Our children know they are not to accept friend requests from individuals they do not personally know in the real world without checking with us as parents first. This has allowed them to meet extended family members. The younger children are not allowed to play online games except with their friends in the real world and the older children are not to engage in conversations with individuals they do not know outside of those related to the game. No personal information such as phone numbers, email or home addresses are to ever be provided to unknown individuals. Facebook privacy settings are to Friends Only in most options and routinely checked to make sure an update to Facebook has not changed them.
I routinely conduct Google searches on our family members to find out what information is accessible on the internet. Believe it or not, this is always changing as more and more newspapers, government agencies and other groups digitize their records. Recently, I was able to find an article on my father from the 1960s and my husband's aunt's wedding announcement from 1959. (Her maiden name was Ann Wixom) Our children have been taught to be careful what they post as status updates, what pictures they share and what Facebook Groups they join. A digital footprint is almost impossible to erase and what is thought of as funny today may not be so funny in a year.
The State of Utah has provided a great program, NetSafe Utah, that is age appropriate to aid individuals in their desire to keep their children and themselves safe when online. (Link here) I would highly recommend it.