November 1, 2021 | Written By Melissa Rueschhoff, Esq.
Perhaps the most frequently asked question I get when I speak on eradicating sexual exploitation of children is from fellow parents – “How can I keep my child safe online?” – and the pandemic hasn’t helped. If anything, as we all spend more time at home, we spend more time online. School-age children (ages 5 to 18) have become adept at attending classes virtually, connecting with family and friends electronically, and exploring the wide range of computer applications and websites. With the click of a button, children can be exposed to and educated on anything from skateboarding tricks to escort services. Information is readily accessible and anyone, anywhere can reach our children in the virtual space.
The prevalence of social media in our culture has made keeping children safe in this “virtual world” even more challenging. While the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) dictates that nearly all social networking sites only allow users aged 13 years and over, this age restriction does not prevent children from creating accounts by simply stating they are 13 years old or have parental consent.
State and federal agencies have issued warnings to parents, educators, and caregivers to be vigilant in practicing internet safety, the goal being to protect youth from online sexual exploitation. But how can you really keep your child safe?
Communicate about the Internet
Communicate with your child. Encourage them to ask questions. Be (age appropriately) open and honest in your responses. You want them to ask you instead of searching for an answer on the internet.
Explain to them that the Internet can be a great place for learning, but anyone can post anything online, appropriate, or inappropriate, true or false. Talk to them about the applications and trusted websites they are permitted to explore. Explore them together.
Be aware of the newest available applications and the dangers they may pose to your child: https://www.familyeducation.com/mobile-apps/a-complete-guide-to-potentially-dangerous-apps-all-parents-should-be-aware-of
Talk about what is important in your family. Teach them to listen to that little voice inside their head or feeling in their gut that guides their decisions. Ask them to make open communication a shared value. Then, praise them when they do.
Set Online Limits
Set parental controls on devices in your home. Limit the websites and applications. Limit the amount of time spent online in general.
Add a monitoring service. There are many great applications designed for families to manage and protect their children’s digital lives. https://www.consumersadvocate.org/parental-control-apps
Create an agreement with your children and make a commitment together on what type of behavior is safe.
As the old saying goes, “Trust is built and maintained by many small actions over time.” Spend quality time together. Be present. Agree that there are no electronic devices allowed at the table when you are sharing a meal together.
If possible, have dinner together 4-7 nights a week. With work, school, activities, sports, and other competing obligations, this can seem impossible – but when you learn that this is the #1 indicator of whether a child will stay in school, get good grades, graduate, and become a contributing member of society – it becomes immeasurably more important than the day-to-day urgencies that won’t matter 5 years from now.
It’s about dedicating time to looking each other in the eye and simply asking, “How was your day?” “What was the weirdest thing that happened today?” “What was the funniest thing that happened today?” “What was one thing you learned that you didn’t know when you woke up this morning?” etc. Then listen to their answers. My children continually surprise me with their disclosures and revelations.
I learn so much from them and about them because I create a safe space to share the simple things. Then, when (not if) they are confronted with something not-so-simple or unsafe or downright scary, I hope they will trust me enough to share those things with me, too.
If you suspect your child is developing an unhealthy relationship or being preyed upon online, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) at www.cybertripline.com or (800) 843-5678 or your local law enforcement office.
Melissa Rueschhoff is a Partner with Parlatore Law Group and an in-demand litigation and criminal law attorney, practicing in the areas of Civil Litigation including special victims and human trafficking, Internal Investigations, Strategic Legal Communications, and Government/Political Law. She has been practicing law for over two decades in nine jurisdictions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 808-825-4747.
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