Keeping Your Kids Safe Online is Your Job

Summer is finally here, in spirit if not in environmental fact. That means kids are out of school with plenty of downtime. And you know what they say about idle hands, right? Well, it applies double to keyboards and touchscreens.

It’s not even funny the amount of trouble I was able to get into as a kid with just a bike, an ardent sense of curiosity, and a wide-open summer day.

But that was nothing compared to the damage kids can do online these days.

The internet threatens way more dangers than a secondhand bike and a lost afternoon in the sun ever could — helmet or no helmet.

Just last week, for example, police broke up a child prostitution ring that was built on Facebook.

But don’t get the wrong idea. This wasn’t about an organized criminal group recruiting girls to staff an illicit brothel.

This was an ad hoc group of young girls (the oldest was 17) luring other girls (the youngest was 13) into forced acts of prostitution.

And this didn’t take place in some tawdry warren of iniquity like Sin City, but in our country’s capital city.

Also this month, at least three children were raped as a result of connections they made on the social media site Skout.

Generally considered a flirting or dating platform, Skout had recently set up a special “Teen Community” that was designed to keep the adults away from the 13- to 18-year-olds.

Reality check: online, there’s no such thing as age. Adults easily posed as teens on Skout and lured some kids into the real world where they were able to attack them.

Specifically, for effect: a 37-year old man is accused of raping a 15-year-old girl; a 24-year-old man accused or raping a 12-year-old girl; and a 21-year-old man is accused of sexually assulting a 13-year-old boy.

To top it all off, Facebook is currently lobbying government to open up its platform to pre-teens. Because of a US law, the social media site’s current terms and conditions expressly forbid anyone under 13 from setting up an account.

Despite this, Consumer Reports estimates that just under 8 million pre-teens have active accounts.

Mark Zuckerberg is wrapping his company’s effort to engage younger children in the “educational” blanket. I have no idea what might be educational about Facebook. Unless “reading ads” is soon to be part of elementary school curriculum.

You might think that because all of this risk exists online that there’s a technical solution to it.

After all, Skout is promising to protect children from adult predators through the use of “proprietary technology”. And Facebook is considering limiting access to information for younger account holders.

Let me break this to you gently: there is no technical solution. Nor should there be.

Raising kids and keeping them safe? That’s our job, primarly as parents but also as a society.

It’s not up to Facebook, or Skout, or even the government. There’s no child-safety algorithm being cooked up by some computer genius somewhere. And no amount of legislation will ever guarantee children cannot be harmed.

This hard job lies with us as parents. Truth be told, though, it’s not that hard a job.

It’s just a matter of being engaged. Paying attention. And communicating.

If you’re just handing your kid a laptop and letting them disappear into their room for untold hours, then you’re an idiot. You’re asking for the worst.

I’m not saying parents need to lurk or interfere. But it’s our right and obligation to set boundaries and understand what our kids are doing, both in the real world and online.

Because if we, as parents, are not willing to be interested in our kids, then there’s obviously a whole lot of adults online who are – just for all the wrong reasons.

If you’re a parent with a kid who’s online, make sure you keep them safe this summer. Don’t trust that responsibility to anyone else.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, June 22, 2012.