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Embracing the Technology in a Child’s World

By Kate Rogers, Special to the Independent

Technology is changing so fast it’s almost impossible for parents to monitor.  In the past, parents knew the world in which their children were growing up and could guide and protect them accordingly.  This is no longer possible as the landscape changes almost daily.  Parents are left stumbling around in the dark while their tech-savvy kids move at lightening-speed through this uncharted new world, according to a technology expert.

In a cyber safety seminar for PTA’s Coffee Break last week, Scott Burnett, the owner of Lake Forest-based Integrity Computer Concepts, described the five hours an average teen spends online daily.

A 2013 study by McAfee, which Burnett cited, revealed: 70% teens hide their online behavior from their parents, half clear their browser history on a regular basis, 32% view pornography on purpose, 25% report having cheated on tests with cell phones, 17% have hacked their friends accounts, 15% turn-off web filters and other parental controls, 15% met-up with a person they met online and 10% create a duplicate Facebook account to be free of parental review.

Even more disturbing is that these behaviors are trending upwards, even as the average age of a child’s first cell phone is going down (currently at 10-12 years old, but estimated to be several years younger in Laguna Beach), Burnett said.

Against a background of current internet usage patterns, he provided a host of very practical tips and tools which can be installed on home systems and through cell-phones to enable parents to protect their children, many of them free.

Few kids know how to respond to cyber-bullying. Last fall, a Florida 12-year-old, Rebecca Sedwick, killed herself after persistent cyber-bullying followed her from one middle school to another.  While her mother monitored Facebook, she didn’t know she was using the apps Kik and Askfm, which invite people to anonymously make comments, often hurtful. Burnett recommends talking to your kids using “what if” questions, keeping their cell phones and laptops out of the bedroom as long as possible, look for signs of depression and remove apps like Kik.

Online predators are another reality. Kids should be taught to answer certain trigger questions to discourage possible targeting.  “Where is your computer?” should always be answered “in the kitchen” whether it is or not, and “Are you alone?” should always be “No,” no matter who is asking the question, Burnett said.

Sexting is another area facilitated by apps like snapchat (a shared photo which has a specified lifespan) and wickr, which promises to “leave no trace.”   Again, kids should be taught that this is never safe or a good idea as this is untrue.

Pornography sites account for over 11% of all websites, and the word “sex” is the number one search term on Google. Burnett recommends installing the K-9 filter (customizing settings to make it user-transparent) on all computers in the home to prevent your 8 year-old from a very unfortunate result from searching “American Girl!”

Social networking is part of everyday life. While 13 is the minimum age for participating, there is no enforcement.  Burnett recommends parents know the platform, follow their child and know their password.  (If kids protest, explain you aren’t looking over their shoulders as much as you “got their back.”)   Instagram can be made safer by turning off the public sharing setting, as well as the GPS tag. Of course, follow your child and talk freely about what they are posting.  Kids are striving for “likes” without considering how their sassy poses and pouty lips are being viewed.  Vine is a social network owned by Twitter that loops six-second videos and has a significant pornographic potential, particularly when collated by sites like vinepeek.com. Burnett recommends installing the free MinorMonitor for Facebook and Twitter, which monitors a “circle of friends” and emails parents when something looks amiss.

Everything posted online leaves a digital footprint, which doesn’t go away. A quarter of colleges as well as potential employers are looking at candidates’ Facebook and other accounts, and can sniff-out the sanitized ones.

Hook-up apps are not pornography per se but are potentially very dangerous. They allow users to view profiles of other users and give a yes/no response, and the “yes’s” are then able to connect.  Beware Tinder, Blendr, Grindr, Skout, Swoon, he said.

Generally, try to keep home computers in a public location, and if not, then install extra controls.  Also, remove cellphones from kids’ rooms at night. (Kids with cellphones get on average one hour less sleep.)  Set the Google search and YouTube settings to “safe search” (lower right corner) and be sure to do so for each user name.  Homework helpers (Freedom for PC’s and Self Control for Macs) block web surfing for a pre-set amount of time.  Burnett also recommends installing Spector Pro and eBlaster (“big brother gone wild”), which can be a lifesaver for some kids.  Think of it as insurance; you hope you’ll never need it.

Apple iOS devices have great parental controls if enabled.  Always remove Safari (which can’t be filtered) and replace it with MetaCert browser on the iPad, and K-9 browser on the iPhone.  Set app purchases to 12+ years old, and turn off the “in-app purchase” setting, which can cost unknowing parents thousands of dollars when their kids get ahold of their phones. TeenSafe monitors texts on the iPhone by reading your child’s iCloud backup. You will need your kids’ iCloud password.  Life360 is a favorite, which tracks all movement of all the phones through time (not just in the present).  Always stay up-to-date with safety-enhancement programs cellphone carriers like Sprint and Verizon are developing.

Burnett’s overriding advice to parents is to stay as current as possible, especially understanding that what is true today cannot be relied upon to stay true tomorrow.  Keep up with technology and embrace it; this is our children’s world.

Kate Rogers is a Laguna Beach parent.

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