By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media, Parenting Editor
If you believe everything you hear about kids online, you might think pedophiles and cyberbullies are around every cyber-corner. Yes, there is bad stuff out there. But the truth is, there's a lot of good, and some experts are arguing against a "techno-panic mindset" that worries parents unnecessarily. The bottom line is that we can't keep our kids safe if we don't know the facts. Here are the five most popular myths about Internet safety -- and the truths that can set your worries free.
Myth: Social media turns kids into cyberbullies.
Truth: There are many reasons why a kid might cyberbully, and social media is just a convenient way to do the dirty work.
The reality is that kids who engage in this behavior typically have something else going on that compels them to act out. They might be in crisis -- at home, at school, or otherwise socially. They may also be bullying in person, or they may have an underdeveloped sense of empathy. Awareness of a cyberbully's circumstances -- though not excusing the behavior -- can help parents and educators recognize the warning signs and potentially intervene before it goes too far.
Myth: Teaching kids not to talk to strangers is the best way to keep them safe online.
Truth: Teaching kids to recognize predatory behavior will help them avoid unwelcome advances.
In today's world, where kids as young as 8 are interacting with people online, they need to know the boundary between appropriate and inappropriate conversation. Kids are often pressured by their own friends to talk about sex, so they need to know it's OK to tell peers to back off. Go beyond "stranger danger" and teach them what kind of questions are not OK (for example, not OK: "Are you a boy or a girl?"; "Where do you live?"; "What are you wearing?"; "Do you want to have a private conversation?"). Also, teach kids to not go looking for thrills online. Risky online relationships more frequently evolve in chat rooms when teens willingly seek out or engage in sexual conversation.
Myth: Social media alienates kids.
Truth: Most kids say social media strengthens their relationships.
Most kids want to have fun, hang out, and socialize normally online -- and in fact, according to the Pew Research Internet Project, that's what the majority is doing. Check out these comforting stats:
- 57 percent of all teens have made new friends online
- 84 percent of boys who play networked games with friends feel more connected when they play online
- 68 percent of teen social media users have had online friends support them through tough or challenging times
And how about the kids who've fought cyberbullying and used the Internet for a social cause? More and more, kids are harnessing the power of the online world -- and busting up a few myths along the way.
Myth: It’s dangerous to post pictures of your kids online.
Truth: If you use privacy settings, limit your audience, and don't ID your kids, it’s pretty safe.
Although it's true that posting anything online invites some risks, there are ways to limit them if you're smart about how you do it.
- Use privacy settings. Make sure your privacy settings are set so only the closest people in your network can view your posts.
- Limit your audience. Only share posts with close family and friends. Or use photo-sharing sites such as Picasa and Flickr that require a log-in to see pics.
- Don't rush your kids into social media. Obey the rules about keeping kids under 13 off social media. Once your kids have an online profile, they can be tagged in photos, which magnifies their online presence. If you're going to upload photos of them, don't identify them and don't tag them -- that way the photo can't be traced back to them.
Myth: Parental controls are the best way to monitor my kids’ online activities.
Truth: Focusing on only one Internet safety method lulls you into a false sense of security.
To keep your kids safe online -- and to raise them to be responsible, respectful digital citizens -- it takes more than installing parental controls. For starters, parental controls can be defeated by determined kids. They also often catch too much in their filters, rendering any Internet search useless, and they set up a "parent vs. kid" dynamic that could backfire.
By all means, use parental controls to help prevent exposure to age-inappropriate material and to manage time limits. But don't think they get you off the hook. Continue to discuss responsible, respectful online behavior, set rules and consequences for misbehavior, and train your kid to manage his or her own usage.
Common Sense Media is an independent nonprofit organization offering unbiased ratings and trusted advice to help families make smart media and technology choices. Check out our ratings and recommendations at www.commonsense.org.