In an age of ubiquitous smartphones and instant online access, it can be a big mistake to leave kids to their own devices.
While most parents are diligent about taking a look at the playground where their child wants to play, those same parents can be lax about inspecting the websites their child plans to visit. The risks posed by those online playgrounds include threats, cyber bullying, and online predators.
"Kids physically can feel like they're in a safe location; their home or whatever, and yet they're exposing themselves, their personal information, and other aspects of their life. .. to pretty much the darkest corners of the Earth that you could imagine," says West Vancouver Police Department spokesman Const. Jeff Palmer.
The key to providing safe passage through the Internet is in being both knowledgeable and present, says Palmer.
"Parents really need to do what they can to educate themselves so they can be a very effective advocate and educator for their own children about what the risks are and how they can protect themselves," he says.
Children need to be taught to exercise caution on social networking sites, advises Palmer. The person on the other side of an Internet avatar may be attempting to find out where a child lives or goes to school, or other sensitive information.
"If you don't know a person in your real day-to-day life you can be opening up the door to a really wide range of risks by allowing a complete stranger through a social media network site," says Palmer.
Police have encountered cases where parents allowed young children unfettered Internet access, says Palmer.
"It amounts to fairly tech-savvy young, primary grade kids who are being left completely to their own device with a tablet computer or a home computer and wandering into areas of the Internet that are really not even close to age appropriate and could be exposing them to specific risks."
Palmer recommends parents keep an eye on their kids as they roam the online universe, perhaps by keeping the computer in a shared room.
"An unsupervised computer means that any knowledge you as a parent have about protecting your kid may not reach the kid when they're inside the room," says Palmer.
When it comes to online bullying, Palmer notes that there are electronic options to block the messaging. But while the medium is different, the same rules from the schoolyard apply on the Internet.
"If somebody is being cyber-bullied or appears to be being targeted by someone for an unlawful purpose, the old see-something-saysomething rule definitely applies," says Palmer.
A child being bullied should tell a counsellor, a teacher, or even a school liaison officer if a criminal offence is involved.
"A threat is a threat is a threat, whether it's smartphone, tablet or desktop," says Palmer. "It doesn't matter how it's delivered."
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