How Can I Protect My Child From Strangers Online?

The internet can be a valuable resource for kids. They can use it to research school reports, get information, learn facts, communicate with teachers and their friends, and play interactive games. But the internet can also pose dangerous hazards. For example, an 8-year-old might initiate an online search for “Lego.” But with just one typo, “Lego” can become “Legs” and the child may be directed to pornographic websites.

Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP

That’s why it’s important to be aware of what your kids see and hear on the internet, who they meet there, and what they share about themselves online. As with any safety issue, we at Westchester Health Pediatrics urge you to 1) talk with your sons and daughters about your concerns about the internet, 2) take advantage of resources to protect them, and 3) keep a close eye on their activities.

Know the internet safety laws

In 1998, a federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), was created to help protect kids younger than 13 when engaged in online activities. It’s designed to keep anyone from getting a child’s personal information without a parent knowing about it and agreeing to it first.

COPPA requires websites to explain their privacy policies on the site and get parental consent before collecting or using a child’s personal information, such as a name, address, phone number or Social Security number. The law also prohibits a site from requiring a child to provide more personal information than necessary to play a game or participate in a contest.

But even with this law, your children’s best online protection is you. By talking to them about potential online dangers and monitoring their computer use, you can help them use the internet safely.

Online protection tools

Many online tools are available that enable you to control your kids’ access to adult material and help protect them from internet predators. For instance, several internet service providers (ISPs) provide parent-control options to block certain material from coming into a computer. You can also get software that helps block access to certain sites based on a “bad site” list which your ISP creates and restricts personal information from being sent online. Other programs can monitor and track online activity.

Our main advice: get involved in your kids’ online activities

As well as taking advantage of these tools, the pediatricians of Westchester Health Pediatrics strongly encourage you to take an active role in protecting your children from internet predators and sexually explicit materials online. Here is what we advise:

  1. Become computer literate and learn how to block objectionable material.
  2. Keep your children’s computers in a common area, not in individual bedrooms, where you can watch and monitor their use.
  3. Monitor whenever your kids are on smartphones or tablets.
  4. Share an email or social media account with your child so you can monitor messages.
  5. Bookmark kids’ favorite sites for easy access.
  6. Spend time online together so you can teach and model appropriate online behavior.
  7. Forbid your child from entering private forums. Block them with safety features provided by your internet service provider or with special filtering software. Be aware that posting messages to forums publicly reveals a user’s email address.
  8. Monitor your credit card and phone bills for unfamiliar account charges.
  9. Find out if any online protection is offered by your child’s school, after-school center, friends’ homes, or anywhere that kids could use a computer without your supervision.
  10. Take your child seriously if he or she reports an uncomfortable online exchange.
  11. Call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at (800) 843-5678 if you’re aware of the transmission, use, or viewing of child pornography online. Contact your local law enforcement agency or the FBI if your child has received child pornography via the Internet.
  1. Ask your internet service provider how to disable “cookies” that track specific information about the user, such as name, email address and shopping preferences. Cookies can be disabled.

Set up guidelines for your kids to use while they’re online

  1. Never post or trade personal photographs.
  2. Never reveal personal information, such as address, phone number, or school name or location. Use only a screen name.
  3. Never agree to meet anyone from a chat room or social media site in person.
  4. Never respond to a threatening email, message, post or text.
  5. Always tell a parent about any communication or conversation that was scary.
  6. If your child has a new “friend,” insist on being “introduced” online to that friend.

A word of caution about chat rooms

Forums, or chat rooms, are virtual online rooms where chat sessions take place. They’re organized around a shared interest, sport or hobby (ex: a favorite TV show). Because members can communicate with each other alone or in a group, these “rooms” can be popular online destinations, especially for kids and teens.

However, these sites can be very dangerous. Some kids have met “friends” in chat rooms who were interested in exploiting them. Predators and pedophiles (adults who are sexually interested in children) are known to frequent chat rooms. These predators sometimes prod their online “acquaintances” to exchange personal information, such as addresses and phone numbers, thus putting the kids they are chatting with—and their families—at risk.

BE AWARE that pedophiles often pose as teenagers in chat rooms. Because many kids have been told by parents not to give out their phone number, pedophiles sometimes ask kids to call them. If your child does this, caller ID will give this potentially dangerous person your child’s phone number.

Warning signs that your child is being targeted by an online predator

  1. spending long hours online, especially at night
  2. phone calls from people you don’t know
  3. unsolicited gifts arriving in the mail
  4. your child suddenly turns off the computer when you walk in the room
  5. withdrawal from family life
  6. reluctance to discuss online activities

If you observe any of these warning signs, contact your local law enforcement agency or the FBI, especially if your child has received pornography through the internet or has been the target of an online sex offender.

If you think your child has been approached by an online predator, or if you ‘re concerned about any aspect of his/her internet use, please contact us

If you have concerns about any facets of your child’s internet safety, or have any kind of question about your child’s health, please make an appointment at Westchester Health Pediatrics to come in and talk with us. We have years of experience in this area and have helped hundreds, possibly thousands, of our parents learn how to cope with this very large, very common and very worrisome issue so that their children can remain safe in the internet age. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.

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By Lauren Adler, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners