According to one recent study, 90 percent of U.S. youth—that’s approximately 37 million young people—connect to the Internet regularly. And young people can be especially vulnerable to the dangers of the virtual world. Identity thieves appropriate names and other personal information in order to steal money or credit card numbers. Cyberbullies use electronic means to torment, threaten, harass or humiliate. Online predators exploit vulnerable children or adolescents, usually for sexual purposes.
By setting an example and teaching young people to use simple precautions, youth workers can help youth stay safe online.
Laurie Lipper, founder and co-president of The Children’s Partnership, a child advocacy organization in Santa Monica, CA, and Washington, DC, is also advisor to Web sites such as GetNetWise, Net Family News, and Common Sense Media. She offers this advice to adults who work with young people:
Teach youth about online dangers and good online safety practices before you let them plunge in. “It’s like learning to cross the street,” she says. Youth need to be aware of the dangers around them. Youth workers can learn more about good online safety practices at the following sites:
Explain the importance of online privacy. Tell youth not to post identifiable information about themselves, such as their full name or identifying photographs, in public forums; to protect their privacy on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook; to never give their passwords to anyone; and to adjust their Web browser’s privacy settings, especially when using a computer in a public place, like a school, library or youth center. The National Network to End Domestic Violence offers a two-page handout that discusses ways youth can protect themselves online.
Offer youth the option of using Google’s SafeSearch or other filters to block sexually explicit or offensive material. Most online search engines offer these filters. Become familiar with them, and show young people how to use them to their best advantage.
Warn youth never to respond to incoming messages or correspondence from anyone they don’t know. Be sure young people know never to open an unexpected e-mail attachment or to click on a link that requests personal information. It could be a predator, spam or a computer virus.
Help youth to get help if they see or experience something that feels wrong. For example, youth who have been persistently bullied online or asked for personal information, photos or a face-to-face meeting can turn to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tipline. The National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline also offers assistance. Youth can call local law enforcement if something troubling happens to them online.
Remind youth that they control the machine—and the on-off button. “You’re the master of the computer, not the other way around,” Lipper says. It’s easy to become engrossed in the online world, and keeping a healthy perspective is important. Time limits allow young people to take care of other priorities. Plus, sometimes a young person can end an uncomfortable situation online simply by logging off.
Youth who have experienced domestic violence should exercise particular caution. The National Network to End Domestic Violence suggests specific safety tips for survivors of intimate partner violence.