The internet can be a dangerous place for both children and young adults. Not only are there sexual predators online looking to take advantage of vulnerable kids, but the phenomenon of cyberbullying has resulted in the suicides of several teens in recent years and is proving itself to be another real and persistent online threat to young people.
The focus of an internet safety lesson should depend on the age of the audience. At around the age of twelve cyberbullying becomes a real concern. Before then, it is best to teach children basic internet safety. Basic internet safety consists of stressing never to give out personal information that a stranger could use to track the child in real life. This includes warnings against sending and posting photos of themselves online and joining social networking sites as well as the most basic warnings against posting full name, address or phone number.
At a certain age it is inevitable that a child’s friends will begin using social networking sites to interact with one another online. No matter what rules parents and educators may try to enforce, children are likely to eventually begin creating profiles on social networking sites. The safety talk for social networking sites is a lot like the safety talk for drugs in that the first step is to educate children on all the reasons social networking sites are dangerous, addictive, and ultimately reward their user with an experience which is not very deeply fulfilling.
The less contact any person has with social networking sites the safer they will be. An online identity can become a liability, one more identity that can be hijacked. Rutgers University student Tyler Parenti died early in the fall semester of 2010, three days after he was videotaped without his knowledge having a consensual homosexual encounter. Parenti wrote on his Facebook page: “Going to jump off the GW Bridge. Sorry.” Although his body was never found, Tyler’s car was found close to where a witness reported seeing a man plummet from the George Washington Bridge. Inside the car were Tyler’s laptop and cell phone.
The danger of cyberbullying is that it is bullying which can extend far beyond the schoolyard into a student’s personal life at home. Media posted on social networking sites has a tendency to go viral easily, making online celebrities of children for unpleasant and at times humiliating reasons. Many employers are now screening potential employees on social networking sites like Facebook, and it is clear that cyberbullying has the potential to affect a person’s employability.
Cyberbullying also affects the young. In 2003, 13 year old Ryan Halligan hung himself at the end of a summer full of online bullying and manipulation. In 2006, Megan Meier hung herself two weeks before her 14th birthday after a friend’s mother had been mercilessly taunting her online for months.
A good internet safety lesson for children should include both the standard safety curriculum meant to keep young web surfers safe from sexual predators and the newer curriculum on the dangers of social networking sites and the potential for cyberbullying that comes with them. A good internet safety lesson comes from a parent or teacher who is open and honest about the real dangers facing kids online, and who helps the child develop an interest in minimizing those dangers. When kids realize that their popularity may be tied up in how much personal information they post online, they may begin to realize that less is more when it comes to creating personal profiles on the internet.