School’s out and kids are online: How to keep your kids cyber-safe

Going online can be fun and educational for kids, but there also are potentially dangerous pitfalls that abound with summertime freedom.

School’s almost out for summer, and for some kids that means more time in a virtual world – surfing the Web, hanging out in online chat rooms and posting to Facebook and Twitter.

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According to a recent report in the journal Pediatrics, 22 percent of teen-agers log on to a social media site more than 10 times a day, and three-quarters have cell phones.

But while kids see summer as a time to explore cyberspace, there is plenty for parents to worry about, from “sexting” to cyber bullying.

“The Internet is a vast place with great things on it for children like games and educational lessons,” said David Schwebel, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “There also are risks and danger such as sex crimes, violence, hatred and prejudice; a lot of things children need to be protected from.”

It’s difficult to completely police a child’s Internet activity, Schwebel said. “Parental controls can help, but are not foolproof. Parents need to teach children to act safely and get help when needed.”

Schwebel offered these tips:

  • Young children always should be supervised online. This is a great opportunity for parents to have playtime with the child and also teach them lessons about the Internet.
  • Sit down with your child and guide them to safe places on the Internet and identify red flags that warn them of inappropriate content.
  • Teach your child to say, “No.” Internet trends, such as taking photos of yourself in dangerous places and posting them online, are often hard to resist for a child who wants to be popular. Talk to your kids about these kinds of fads and make sure they understand the consequences and also know how to walk away.
  • Set online time limits. Don’t let your child sit in front of a computer all day. “Sitting on the Internet does not burn calories,” Schwebel said. “Children need to be out running, playing and active.”
  • If your child exhibits inappropriate behavior — talks about suicide or about meeting strangers in the mall —seek help right away.

For more information, check out these online reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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