By Siri Agrell
Most parents make an effort to learn the names of their children’s friends, keep up to date on the music they listen to and know the movie stars they admire. You probably know what classes they like, and whose house they hang out at after school. But what do you really know about the world your kids inhabit online? When it comes to the World Wide Web, the generation gap can be huge, and many moms and dads are intimidated by the speed and voracity with which their kids have embraced the technology. But don’t fear, just as you learned to childproof your light sockets and decipher teenage vocabulary, it’s easy to get up to speed on just what’s available on the Internet, and what you need to know to keep your child cyber-safe.
THE SCOOP: For kids, making friends has never been so easy — or so bizarre. Social networking sites allow users to set up their own page, complete with photographs, a personal web log and other tailor-made content. But most importantly, these sites are a portal for kids to communicate with “friends” — other kids they know from school, camp, that vacation you took to Mexico, and even new acquaintances that they meet online. Social networking sites have joined instant messaging and chat rooms as the preferred method of teenage communication, allowing them to stay in near-constant contact. Which site your child uses depends largely on his age. Older teens aged 15-19 are more likely to be on MySpace (which boasts six million Canadian monthly users) or Facebook, a site that has exploded in popularity over recent months with more than two million Canadian users. For kids around 14 years old, Canadian-based Piczo and Nexopia are hugely popular, and are also better regulated than the more adult-friendly sites.
BONUS: Almost any child you talk to will defend social networking as her lifeline — the best way for her to stay in touch and in the loop. The sites allow kids to create their own kind of celebrity, experimenting with image and self-expression while finding other young people who share their tastes and interests.
BUMMER: Unfortunately, sexual predators also favour social networking sites, and children should be encouraged to make their pages private and to introduce parents to their friends list. Besides issues of safety, privacy is also a major concern. Employers, universities, teachers and even the media can search a child’s name and find potentially embarrassing online admissions. “As soon as they put it online, they don’t own it; people can do whatever they want with it,” says Cathy Wing of Media Awareness Network, a Canadian organization that teaches kids to be media-literate. “It’s really important that kids don’t put anything online that could come back to haunt them in the future.” Kids should be encouraged to keep quiet about others, too. Social networking sites are a playground for cyberbullies, and many young people spread vicious information about each other — and adults — through these forums.
THE SCOOP: When Wing’s organization surveyed young Canadians about their favourite sites, she was surprised to see that eBay ranked in the top 20. Members of the hugely popular buy-and-sell auction site are required to be 18 or older, but many kids and teens seem to be finding ways to log on and pay out.
BONUS: Commerce is a huge part of life, both on- and offline, and children can learn a lot from the responsibility of financial transactions.
BUMMER: Kids are also being wooed by a number of online dealers who encourage them to shop in a virtual world with very real costs. The site Habbo.ca, for example, is a popular site for Canadian youth, where they can buy Habbo Credits to decorate a room at the virtual hotel, buy gifts for their friends, play games and even join a “VIP club.” The site has several different payment
options, including credit card, Interac and money order, and kids can also buy prepaid cards at retail outlets like Indigo. Wing spoke to one Canadian police officer whose son had used his credit card to throw a virtual party at Habbo, racking up a $3,000 bill.
THE SCOOP: In recent years poker has experienced a tremendous resurgence both in real life and online. With the help of TV shows like Celebrity Poker Challenge, gambling has attracted a slew of teenage followers.
BONUS: Most of the big-time gambling sites like Golden Palace and Golden Casino only allow adults over the age of 18 to play for money, but many have “fun mode” options, where kids can play without anteing up any cash. In addition to casino-style websites, other popular online destinations feature watered-down kiddie versions of gambling games. Neopets.com, the third most popular site among young Canadians, allows visitors to create pets and then care for them using items purchased with Neopoints, earned by playing Neopoker, JubJub Blackjack and Diceroo.
BUMMER: Rob Nickel, founder of Cyber-Safety.com, says gambling games, while fun, can lead to problem behaviour. “Even if they’re just playing for kicks, it could be grooming them towards a gambling addiction,” he said. “When they get to the age where they have a credit card, it could be a problem.”
THE SCOOP: If you are older than 18, chances are you think an MMORPG is some kind of Manitoba retirement fund. But massively multiplayer online role-playing games are virtual activities that have taken the Dungeons and Dragons set into the 21st century. Boasting millions of players worldwide, MMORPGs are mainly the domain of adolescent boys who revel in killing aliens, driving fast and generally shooting at stuff that doesn’t exist.
BONUS: Similar to traditional video games, the pros of this pastime depend on how you feel about electronic stimulation. Game players develop hand-eye co-ordination and problem-solving skills, and if the world is ever invaded by scantily clad Martians, the younger generation will undoubtedly know what to do.
BUMMER: MMORPGs, unlike the Wii or XBox, also allow geographically disparate players to talk to each other while playing, introducing the threat of “stranger danger” to the virtual world. Nickel says online games are as enticing to predators as social networking sites, due to the fact that they are almost solely populated by children, many of whom play without adult supervision.
THE SCOOP: You might not want to hear this, but chances are your child has already stumbled on — or sought out — sexual content via the Internet. A cross-country survey by Media Awareness found that a third of boys in Grades 7 through 9 had purposely gone to a porn site.
BUMMER: It is not just explicitly X-rated sites that pose a threat. One-third of the top 50 sites among Canadian youth contain sexual content of some kind. Among these, it is video-sharing sites like NewGrounds and Ebaumsworld.com that have the largest followings. Clips of funny TV shows and juvenile pranks are interspersed with footage of violent attacks, soft-core stripteases and general displays of idiocy. “There’s a lot of disturbing stuff on the Internet, but things tend to become mainstream if you’re exposed to them regularly,” says Wing. “If this is a young person’s first exposure to sexual imagery, that is concerning.”
Toronto-based writer and reporter Siri Agrell is eternally grateful that the Internet did not exist when she was a teenager.
HOW TO BE INVOLVED WITHOUT BEING INVASIVE
Respecting your child’s privacy and looking out for her best interests is always a difficult line to walk, especially when your child is a teenager with a lock on her door and a chip on her shoulder.
When it comes to regulating a child’s online behaviour, most experts recommend early intervention and constant supervision. Kids become web-savvy at shockingly young ages these days — 20 per cent of kids in Grade 4 have their own Internet connection, according to the Media Awareness Network.
The most important first step is to ensure that Internet connections are out of children’s bedrooms, especially if they’re younger than 10. If they want to be online, they should do so in a communal room.
Research has shown that kids who live in households with rules about Internet activities are less likely to engage in risky behaviour. This doesn’t mean setting strict guidelines about how much time they can spend online, but having a discussion about what kind of sites — and behaviours — are appropriate and inappropriate.
Diana Johnson, a counselor with Kids Help Phone, says most kids’ biggest fear is that their parents will cut off Internet access altogether, leaving them without their social lifeline. This threat is often enough to prevent them from telling mom or dad if something has happened to them online, she says.
“You’re going to be upset,” says Johnson. “So don’t promise them there won’t be any discipline, but be proud of them for wanting to get help.”
Cathy Wing of Media Awareness Network says all parents must instruct their children to password-protect social-networking pages and talk to them about what personal information they shouldn’t disclose online, including their real names, where they live, the school they attend, and their online passwords. “The younger you start the easier it is to enforce,” she says. “I think open dialogue is the key.”
Recreational net surfing may also leave your kids susceptible to online bullying. But before you pull the plug, keep reading for tips on how to detect and prevent your kids from being a victim.
It's a typical school morning at Maria D'alessandro's Woodbridge, Ont....