Now that kids ages 5 and up are fully immersed in the Internet, parents are constantly warning their children about the dangers of cyber predators. But those anonymous stalkers aren't the only online enemy. Young Internet users must also protect themselves from those closest to them: their friends.
"Best friends today hate each other tomorrow,'' Internet safety expert Parry Aftab told a group of St. Petersburg parents last week. "You put together time, technology and creativity in the hands of a kid and we're all in trouble."
Aftab is the executive director of WiredSafety.org, a New York nonprofit organization with volunteers around the country. Its aim is to make the Internet safer for everyone from seniors to kids. Along with appearing on national news shows such as Frontline and Today, Aftab, an attorney who focused on Internet law before starting WiredSafety.org, travels the country speaking to kids and parents. She visited Canterbury School of Florida in St. Petersburg last week and met with small groups of students throughout the day and parents in the evening.
Aftab says that when she talks with students, she always asks if they have been cyber bullied. Of the 45,000 children she has polled, she says at least 85 percent say they have been cyber bullied at least once.
"She really opened my eyes to how much it affected people,'' said 13-year-old Simone Leeper.
"I knew people got upset about it but I had no idea people committed suicide over it,'' echoed 15-year-old Jeremy Dolan.
Suicide may be the extreme outcome, but cyber bullying can easily lead to a child not wanting to go to school, having a bad self image and depression. Cyber bullying can occur in the form of personal attacks via e-mail or posting insults and lies on someone's Facebook or MySpace page.
Though these sites are geared for kids 14 and older, Aftab said third-graders and up are using them.
Cyber bullying even happens on the Webkinz site set up for the youngest Internet users to play games with cute animals. Friends who know each other's passwords can go online and steal money (online credits) out of someone else's account.
One of the most common forms of cyber bullying is when a "friend" goes on someone's MySpace or Facebook page and copies an unflattering picture, anything from underage drinking to a suggestive pose, then sends it throughout the Internet to potential boyfriends, former friends, even a school principal. Then it can keep spreading to more and more Web sites, e-mails and cell phones.
"It's like trying to catch a creek,'' Aftab said. "What you post online stays online." That's why kids need to protect themselves from themselves. "Good kids in the comfort of their own bedroom when they are bored will do things you never dreamed they would do," Aftab added, referring to the pictures and rhetoric they may post online.
Take for instance a new type of cyber bullying in which someone e-mails a white supremacy or neo-Nazi Web site and says: "I know a guy who said your group is stupid. Here is his name and this is his e-mail or his Facebook page." This is known as cyber bullying by proxy.
Control your space
Jill Hill, who attended the presentation, said her daughter came home from school that day and shared the advice Aftab had preached. "She told me she learned not to say anything online that you wouldn't want your mother to hear,'' Hill said.
Dolan has certain controls on his MySpace account that help him monitor what other people might post on his page. "Whatever people send goes through my e-mail before it goes on MySpace,'' he said. "I delete some things." He said most people don't use this filter.
"Some people don't care what goes on there or they think it's not cool,'' he said.
Aftab suggested parents give their kids 24 hours' notice that they want to look at their Facebook or MySpace pages. This gives them time to clean them up and they don't feel the parents are ambushing them. But then tell your child you may want to look at it from time to time without notice. Stress that you don't want to read messages or find out who they kissed at the movies but just make sure they're not putting incriminating or just plain embarrassing items on there that can even end up in the hands of college admissions offices or scholarship committees.
Trust is a key part of the parent-child-Internet relationship. If the Internet becomes a huge battle between parent and child, then the child likely won't confide in his parent when he is bullied or befriended by a potential predator. Aftab said parents shouldn't insist that kids 14 or older give them their passwords to these pages but they should have the right to see them with their child present.
Block and tell
Aftab is working on a campaign against cyber bullying with Tina Meier, the mother of troubled teen Megan Meier who, at age 14, hanged herself in 2006 after being cyber bullied. She thought she had befriended a nice boy online but then he turned on her, slinging insults. After her death, Tina Meier learned the "boy" was actually the mother of a former friend of her daughter's posing as an online friend.
"Time limits are the single best thing you can do to keep your kids out of trouble,'' Aftab urged. "Find the right amount of time your child should spend online to do what they need to do (and) what they want to do without having time to think: 'What can I do now?' ''
In most cases kids get cyber bullied by people they know from school, the neighborhood or camp. Aftab's mantra to students from second grade and up is "Stop, block and tell a trusted adult." If children are getting bullied they shouldn't say the same things or worse back. They should block that person from their site or e-mail and then tell an adult.
After first giving a hug and promising you'll solve this together, get the full story: Ask your child if she has received something like this before. Are you being bullied in real life? Have you sent anything like this to him or her before? Parents can also go to wiredsafety.org and report the incident to someone who will e-mail them back with suggestions for how to proceed.
"As much as you want to go out and wring that little kid's neck who did this," Aftab said, "you can't let your child think (the bully) is the one in control."
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg.