As a parent of two small children, my number-one priority is their safety. As they grow up, I learn every day how difficult it is to combat everything this world has to offer -- good and bad.
There are many things we can control as parents, but even more that we cannot.
Today, predators do not have to lurk on the playground; instead they are able to use the Internet to seek out victims without revealing their true identity.
With the rise of smartphones and tablets, Internet access, cameras and social media are readily available at our fingertips.
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As parents, we need to consider the dangers that exist and how to protect our children from this silent enemy. As kids head back to school, it is a great time of year to discuss safety tips with your children and make sure they are aware of just how powerful the Internet can be.
The Internet is just like a chainsaw. When you use a chainsaw for its intended purpose, it's simply a tool. However if it falls into the wrong hands, it can become a dangerous weapon. The Internet is no different; used correctly it is a great resource, but in the wrong hands, it quickly becomes a dangerous place.
Whenever I speak with middle school and high school students on this topic, I always encourage them to understand that the Internet is forever. What you post online today can have an impact -- negative or positive -- on the rest of your life. When you are young, it's difficult to think about such severe repercussions, which is why it's up to us as parents to ensure children are protected and they know what is and isn't acceptable online. It's not only about shielding them from online predators, or harmful images -- we must also help them develop responsible online behavior so that they can make smart decisions in the future.
We need to establish ongoing dialogue with our children about their activities. What type of websites do they like to visit? What apps are they using on their smartphone or tablet? Who are they talking to and how much time are they spending online? What games are they playing? It's our duty to monitor our children's online activities, but with busy schedules and active families, that can be difficult.
Your rules can be simple, such as keeping the computer in a common area of the house instead of a child's bedroom, but this simple step can make it easier for parents to monitor children's online activity. I encourage you to consider the following tips and discuss them with your family:
1. Never give out identifying personal information online without getting a parent's permission first.
2. Remember that people online may not be who they seem. Since you cannot see or hear the person, he or she could misrepresent who they really are, how old they are and what they want.
3. Encourage children not to respond to messages that are obscene, belligerent, threatening, or which makes them feel uncomfortable.
4. Never open email from strangers -- it may contain viruses that can harm a computer.
5. Learn about computers and the services your child uses. Find out what types of information it offers and whether there are ways for parents to block/filter objectionable material.
The reality is that predators are using the Internet to gain pertinent personal information on potential victims, such as what school they attend or what activities they are involved with.
If a young girl posts a picture on social media of herself in her cheerleading uniform at the Friday night game, she has just given strangers the knowledge of where she attends school, the fact that she is on the cheerleading squad, her name and what she looks like. This all sounds scary, but we should be scared. The threat of danger is real.
While we can't change the behavior of others, it's our responsibility to equip our children with the guidelines necessary so they can enjoy a positive, safe online experience.
The Internet will only continue to grow and become more accessible. I encourage you to take the time to understand your child's habits on the Internet and to talk with them about it.
Knowledge is power, and it can help you protect your child from the silent predators lurking online.
The S.C. Attorney General's Office chairs the Internet Crimes Against Children taskforce.
Our office provides education to prosecutors and law enforcement in this area, as well as materials to schools, community groups, parents and children.
For more information on Internet safety and the ICAC Taskforce, go to www.SCKids.org.