By Chris Croll
With COVID raging in our community, and school out for the holidays, many devices are likely to find their way in the hands of children this holiday season. Parents are tired and, frankly, many of us are out of ideas for how to entertain our kids at home. Letting children access screens makes them happy and it gives us a break. As a result, screen usage by kids has gone through the roof.
As I watch my teens staring at their phones day after day, I can’t help but wonder if the threat behind those screens is as great, if not greater, than the threat of the virus we are trying so hard to avoid. I recently interviewed Lisa Honold, director of the Center for Online Safety, to ask her some questions about how to keep kids safe online. Here is an excerpt of that conversation.
Have online threats increased since the start of the pandemic? During the first three months of quarantine, Bark, a company that tracks online threats, saw a 23% rise in online child predators, a 63% increase in hate speech and today more than 36% of teens are posting and/or sexting nude pictures of themselves online. Parents are always surprised when they find out their kids have posted nudes online or sexted explicit photos to friends. Obviously, this can have devastating consequences for a young person. To make matters worse, online predators are engaging in an activity called, “sextortion” where they get ahold of these nudes and then threaten to make the photos go viral if teens do not pay up or send even more explicit photos. Many kids are frightened when this happens so instead of reporting the threat, they give in to the extortionists and the abuse continues. This has become such a problem that the FBI issued a warning this year for parents about the dangers of online sexual exploitation.
What ages are most at risk for dangers online? All parents of children under the age of 18 need to be vigilant about what their kids are doing online. Even games that young children play, such as Minecraft, are known to have sexual predators lurking about. There was a case in the news recently where a 6-year-old was approached in a Minecraft chat room and asked to send explicit photos.
Where should parents go to set up parental controls on devices? A free online resource called “Bark-o-matic” gives parents step-by-step instructions for how to set up parental controls on gaming systems, tablets, phones, smart TV’s and other devices.
What do experts say about the amount of screen time our kids should be getting right now? These are extenuating circumstances, so it is OK—necessary even—for kids to be on screens more now than before the pandemic. That said, parents must do three things to keep kids healthy and safe:
1. Install a filter to prevent kids from accessing inappropriate content. Most antivirus software includes a content filter or parents can invest in a commercial solution like Circle.
2. Set screen time limits. Taking a break from screens gives your child a chance to use their imagination, get some exercise and be creative. On the Center for Online Safety website, you can find a list of more than 100 offline activities for kids.
3. Supervise your child’s online world. Bark and other services monitor 30+ of the most popular apps and social media platforms, including texts and emails, for signs of digital danger. If something out of the ordinary or inappropriate appears on your child’s device, parents are alerted. Otherwise, a child’s privacy is maintained.
With our children spending so much time online this season, and for the foreseeable future, it is more critical than ever for parents to have visibility into what our kids are accessing through those screens.
Chris Croll is a writer, empathy activist and communications consultant. She lives in Leesburg with her husband and two teenage boys.