Parents ill equipped to protect kids from online dangers

First the good news: Many youth still go to mom and dad first when they encounter “something bad” online.

The not-so-good news is kids and their parents may have very different views of what constitutes an online evil.

This was a core message from the June 2010 Norton Online Family Report: Global insights into family life online.

The report was recently released by Norton, the consumer division of computer security software maker Symantec Corp.based in Mountain View Calif.

The study polled 7,000 adults and 2,800 children aged eight to 17 in 14 different countries, including Canada.

It investigated tech knowledge gaps between children and parents, online codes of conduct, and perceived digital dangers and experiences.

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Parents are slowly wising up to their children’s online lives, a Symantec executive noted at a media briefing on the report.

However, there’s still a huge gap been perception and reality.

For instance, last year parents worldwide underestimated by as much as 50 per cent the amount of time their children spent on the Internet, noted Lynn Hargrove, director of consumer solutions, Symantec Corp. Canada.

Today we see that gap closing, she said. “In India, for instance, parents know exactly how many hours their children spend online.”

Mind the gaps

But as this gap closes, others are appearing.

For example, 17 per cent of children polled by the Norton study reported they have access to the Internet via their cell phones, but only 10 per cent of the parents were aware of this.

Twenty-three per cent of the kids said they access the Internet outside their homes — a fact that only 17 per cent of parents know.

Hargrove said it’s interesting that while children appear to be looking for some home-based structure around online behaviour, they perceive as outdated rules imposed by their parents or guardians.   

She said some parents might emphasize limiting online hours but neglect to check up up on sites visited or content downloaded by their kids.

Worldwide, 44 per cent of parents think they should have full control over their children’s online activities.

That number is 61 per cent in Canada. Four out of ten parents say they always know what their kids are looking at online, but about 54 per cent says they only know “sometimes”.

Five per cent of parents admit they have no idea what their kids are doing online. Asked the same question, about 20 per cent of the children said their parents are unaware of their online activities.

In some countries such as China, only 11 per cent of parents want to control their children’s online activities.

A possible reason, Hargrove suggested, is because it’s the children who are well-versed with the technology. “Perhaps some parents haven’t caught up and would rather have nothing to do with it.”

Not just fun and games

It’s vital that parents take an active role in monitoring and controlling their kids’ online activities, according to Rob Nickel a cyber safety expert and 14-year veteran of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Nickel used to work in the Ontario Provincial Police’s (OPP) child pornography section.

While many parents might be more concerned about curtailing extended participation in online games, they need to go beyond that, according to Nickel.

“The Internet is not just for fun and games,” he said. “Increasingly children are visiting sites that expose them to images of sex and violence or targets of online crime. They are making friends with strangers who could turn up to be abusers or manipulators.”  

Findings from the Norton study bear out this view.

At least 41 per cent of the children were troubled that someone they did not know tried to add them to a social networking site. 

Twenty five per cent said they were exposed to nude or violent photos, and at least 10 per cent said someone they only knew online tried to meet them in person.

Nickel said many kids visit a site called that enables complete strangers to enter into video conversations online.

The risk is you never know whether you’ll meet a celebrity or a creepy pervert.

While 83 per cent of children’s online activities involve online games, the Norton survey indicates children are also spending time on: Internet surfing, 73 per cent; school homework, 71 per cent; and talking to friends, 61 per cent.

The Internet permeates such a large part of children’s lives that evils such as online bullying have become more common, said Nickel. “The Internet is where kids communicate and live. It has become so simple for kids to crush other kids online.”

For instance, he said demeaning or doctored photos can easily by distributed to wide audience via cell phones and the Internet. Facebook hate pages are very often used by bullies to hurt and alienate their targets.

Angry, upset, worried, afraid, ashamed, confused, distrustful, shocked, helpless, were some words used by children who had negative online experiences to describe their feelings.

He talked about challenges parents may face dealing with online bullying.

“We know all about the other kid. But can we spot the signs when it’s our kid who’s doing the bullying?”

Rules of engagement

The good news is kids actually want parents and guardians to set up the rules of online engagement, the Norton survey found.

Ninety per cent of respondents said they had rules regarding computer and Internet use. Nine out of 10 children said they followed the house rules.

Perhaps more encouraging, 87 per cent of the children said they would tell an adult if threatened with physical harm online; 84 per cent would tell an adult if they were being blackmailed online; and 71 per cent said they would report suspicious or inappropriate online activity.

With minimal parental guidance, young Internet users have also set up their own rules. Children surveyed said these are:

  • Don’t bully or be mean to others online (68 per cent)
  • Tell a parent if you’re being bullied online (67 per cent)
  • Don’t harass or stalk people online (62 per cent)
  • Don’t pass embarrassing photos or posts about someone (58 per cent)
  • Don’t pass spam (54 per cent)

“These are pretty good rules and they show children are aware of what could harm them online,” said Nickel.

But he stressed that parents should still keep and eye on their kids online activities and strengthen these rules with their own.

Very often, he said, children have no idea how content they post online could come back to haunt them or set them up as targets for cyber crime, stalking, or even home invasion.

“I still get surprised looks when I tell kids that a simple tweet about an upcoming vacation in Mexico could be an invitation to burglars and how a Facebook post about a favourite park could be an invitation to a stalker.”  

The rule of thumb, Nickel said, is to always know what your children are doing online and always keep the home computer or laptop in plain view.

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