Teen Safety on the Internet

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General Risks

Situations and Behavior That Make You Feel Uncomfortable

Not everything that can go wrong in cyberspace necessarily puts you in physical danger. There are web sites, newsgroups, chat rooms, and other places online that contain material that could make you feel uncomfortable. It could be material that's sexual and/or violent in nature. It could be material espousing hateful attitudes or discussing activities that you find repulsive or unpleasant. It really doesn't matter what it is. What does matter is that you have the right - and the tools - to instantly remove yourself from any area where you feel you shouldn't be.

Putting Yourself in Physical Danger

The most serious risk you can face involves the possibility of someone hurting or exploiting you because of information that you post or someone else posts about you online or because of something you do or somewhere you go as a result of what you encounter online. The number of teens who are molested, abducted, or leave home as a result of contacts made on the Internet are relatively low, but when it happens the results can be tragic.

Giving Up Privacy or Putting Yourself or Your Family in Financial Risk

The Internet, like so many other places in this world, is home to people who would try to take money from you or your family or just pester you with unwelcome advertising and marketing material. Be especially wary of any "get rich quick" schemes that promise to help earn you lots of money in your spare time. If something sounds "too good to be true," it probably is.

Harassment

Not everyone in cyberspace minds their manners. When you're online, especially in chat rooms or bulletin boards, there is a chance that you'll get messages that are harassing, demeaning, or just plain mean. Don't take it personally. A message that is demeaning says a lot more about the sender than it does about the person who gets it. Ironically, even people who are nice in the "real" world can forget their manners when they go online. The best thing to do if you encounter messages or people in chat rooms who are acting that way is to ignore them. Some messages, however, may constitute harassment, which is a crime under federal law. If someone sends you messages or images that are obscene, lewd, filthy, or indecent with the intent to harass, abuse, annoy, or threaten you, report it to your Internet service provider and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline by calling 1-800-843-5678.

Hurting Others and Getting into Trouble

Avoid anything that might hurt people and risk getting yourself into trouble. You need to respect other people's privacy and avoid taking any actions that annoy, harass, or hurt other people. You are responsible for your behavior online.

Risks by Area

The Web

Web sites give you the opportunity to read newspapers, tour museums, check out libraries, visit distant lands, play games, look at pictures, shop, or do research to help you with your homework. You can pursue your hobbies, plan vacations, and much more. There are millions of web sites on just about every topic imaginable.

Did You Know?

Some web sites are wonderful, others are kind of dumb, and some contain so-called "adult" images and other material that teens should avoid. Still others are violent, racist, sexist, and demeaning. Some of these sites contain material that can be disturbing, even for adults. If you wander into any of these areas, it's best to leave immediately by clicking on the Home icon, going to another site, or shutting down your browser.

Caution

In addition to displaying information, web sites sometimes ask you for information about yourself. The site may ask for your name, mailing address, E-mail address, and other information before it will let you in. It may entice you to provide information in exchange for sending you a promotional item or entering you in a contest. Never enter any information about yourself without first checking with your parents.

When you enter information on a web site or anyplace on the Internet, you're giving up a bit of your privacy. At best, your name will wind up in some database, probably to be used to sell you something now or later. At worst, it could be used to harm or exploit you. Just because a web site seems to be operated by a reputable organization or individual doesn't mean that it necessarily is what it seems to be. Anyone - including creeps and criminals - can set up their own web site. So be extremely cautious before telling the "web master" anything about yourself. This is especially true with sites that contain adult material.

Some teenagers have their own web sites or post material to web sites maintained by their school or an organization. That's terrific, but if you do post something on the web, be sure never to include your home address, telephone number, or a photograph of yourself. If you do want people to be able to contact you through the web, just give an E-mail address.

Chat Rooms

Chat rooms let you engage in a live conversation with people around the block or around the world. It's like being on a party line, only you type instead of talk. Everyone in the "chat room" can see everything you type. The types of chat rooms vary depending on the service you're using. Some chat rooms are just open conversations. Everyone has a pretty much equal role. Some rooms are moderated where there is a "speaker" who is leading the discussion and participants. Some rooms have chaperons or monitors who are responsible for maintaining order, but even in some of these rooms what you type is displayed immediately. The monitor can kick someone out of the room who is acting in an inappropriate manner, but he or she may be able to act only after the fact. The monitor can't, however, prevent you from going off to a private chat area with a person who might do you harm or typing information that could put you in danger.

Did You Know?

Chat is probably the most dangerous area on the Internet for a couple of reasons. As with other areas of the Internet, you don't know who is there, so never, say anything in a chat room that you wouldn't say in public.

It's not uncommon for people to make "friends" in chat rooms. You enter a room; start a conversation with someone; and, before you know it, you've established a relationship of sorts. That relationship could turn out OK, but there are some not-so-happy stories. Chat rooms are sometimes used by people to exploit others. To put it bluntly, chat rooms -especially those used by teenagers - are sometimes also used by pedophiles to find victims. Adults or even older teens seeking to exploit younger people don't necessarily tell the truth about who they are.

You might meet someone in a room who appears to be sympathetic and understanding and offers you wonderful advice and counsel. If the relationship remains strictly online, that could be OK as long as you're careful not to give out any personal information and you let your parents know.

Caution

It can be tempting to get together with someone you meet in a chat room, but remember - people are not always who they seem to be. The basic rules for online safety apply to all areas of the Internet, but they are especially important in chat areas. Never give your personal information, and never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone you meet in a chat room without first checking with your parents and taking the precautions listed in "Never Get Together With Someone You 'Meet' Online" on page 12.

Chat rooms are sometimes organized around topics, so avoid any topic area that makes you feel uncomfortable. But just because a chat room is designated around a particular topic doesn't mean that other topics aren't discussed. Even if the room is "teens only," you have no way of knowing if everyone really is a teenager, so you still have to be on guard.

Be especially careful of chat rooms that get into subjects that might be associated with sex or cults or groups that practice potentially dangerous rituals. It might seem interesting or even fun to discuss actions that you might never consider engaging in, but some people who fantasize about things also like to carry them out.

Be suspicious of anyone who tries to turn you against your parents, teachers, or friends. They may have a hidden agenda.

On some services and web sites you can enter into a private chat area where you can arrange to meet friends. In some cases, those rooms are truly private. But in other cases they may be listed in a directory of rooms. If so, there is nothing to stop others from entering those rooms.

One trick to avoid harassment, especially for women and girls, is to choose a gender-neutral name - like your initials or a word - to use in a chat room. It's fine to be cute or funny with the name you choose, but be sure it doesn't identify you and doesn't have any meaning or implication that might encourage others to bother you.

E-Mail

E-mail is typically a one-to-one communications system. Just like regular mail, you write to someone and they can write back.

Did You Know?

Increasingly, people and companies are using E-mail to send out messages to thousands of people at a time, encouraging them to buy something, do something, or visit a web site. The process, know as "spamming," can be intrusive and annoying. Because E-mail is essentially free, "spammers" can send out thousands or even millions of messages at little or no cost. Some use spamming to try to entice people to visit sexually explicit web sites.

Each E-mail message that you send and receive! contains a return address. What many people I don't realize is that the return address can be fake. So, just because you get a message from "grandma@cottage.com" doesn't mean it's really from grandma. It could really be from wolf@bigfangs.com." E-mail also contains other information called a "header" that provides more information about who sent the message and where it came from. Understanding the header information can be difficult, but if you ever receive an E-mail message that is belligerent, threatening, or contains materials that makes you feel uncomfortable, you should report it to your Internet service provider and ask them to investigate where it came from. If the material appears to be illegal in nature, you should report it to the CyberTipline at www.missingkids.com/cybertip or call 1-800-843-5678.  Illegal material includes threats to your life or safety, threats to others, child pornography, and evidence of other crimes. NCMEC will refer this report to the appropriate federal law enforcement agencies.

Caution

Be careful how you respond to E-mail from people you don't know. Remember, the sender might not be who he or she seems to be. Never send a photograph of yourself or any personal information to someone you don't know. Also, E-mail can easily be copied and forwarded to others. So if you do send personal information to friends, be sure that they are willing to respect your privacy.

In general, it's best not to respond to spam mail or mail from someone you don't know. By responding, you are verifying to the sender that you have a valid E-mail address, and that information can be used to encourage a person who may send inappropriate E-mails or get you on even more lists. If you receive a message that contains material that is sexually explicit, violent, or advocates something that is illegal or simply makes you feel uncomfortable, show it to your parents and report that message to your Internet service provider. You can usually find that address on the service's main web page (www.servicename.com). When in doubt, report the message to postmaster@servicename.com (substitute the name of your service for "servicename").

Newsgroups, Forums, and Bulletin Boards

Newsgroups (sometimes called bulletin boards or forums) are places where you can read and post messages or download or upload files. Unlike chat rooms, newsgroups are not live or "real time." If you post a message it remains on the newsgroup for people to look at later. Newsgroups can also be used to post files including computer programs, pictures, illustrations, and stories.

Did You Know?

There are newsgroups on almost every possible subject, and they are often used as ways to get questions answered and share information about hobbies, musical groups, or any other subject of interest. Unfortunately, newsgroups, like other areas of cyberspace, have risks.

Caution

The biggest risk is that you might post something that reveals information about yourself. Even if you are responding to a particular individual's posting, what you type, in most cases, is available for anyone j to see. So, once again, remember the basic rules and never reveal identifying information about yourself. In many cases, the mere act of posting something makes your E-mail address public. Even if you don't say anything revealing, your address will be available for people to send you E-mail that could be bothersome, and newsgroups are a favorite place for people who send out junk mail ("spam") to gather addresses.

There are newsgroups that contain sexually explicit stories, illustrations, and photographs. In some cases, this material may be illegal, especially if it contains images of people who are younger than the age of 18 or certain other material that has been defined as "obscene." Some of this material can be disturbing and should be avoided. It is dangerous to post anything in these types of groups because anything you type reveals your E-mail address which could reveal your identity. Remember, anytime you post to a newsgroup you are broadcasting your E-mail address, even if you don't include your actual name.

Educate Your Parents

Your parents spent more than a decade educating you and teaching you about things they know. Now it's your turn. Regardless of whether your parents are Internet novices or technology gurus, there are probably things you know about the Internet that they don't. This is a great opportunity for you to show them what you do online and, perhaps, help them get more out of the Internet themselves. Hey, it could be the start of a whole new relationship.

Basic Rules of Online Safety for Teens

The most important thing to remember is that when you're online in any kind of a public forum, you're out in public and anyone can read whatever you post. You should never post anything on the Internet that you wouldn't want known to the public at large. You should also remember that people you meet in cyberspace might not be who they seem to be.

Keep Your Identity Private

If you're in any type of public forum, avoid giving out your full name, your mailing address, your telephone number, the name of your school, or any other information that could help someone determine your actual identity. The same applies to your family and friends. Never reveal anything about other people that could possibly get them into trouble.

Never Get Together with Someone You "Meet" Online

The biggest danger to your safety is if you get together with someone you "meet" online. Remember, you never know for certain if people you meet online are who they say they are. If you do feel it's appropriate to meet with someone, discuss it with your parents and never go to the meeting by yourself.

Arrange to meet in a public place, like a coffee shop or mall that you (not just the other person) are familiar and comfortable with, and never go alone. The safest procedure is to have your parents talk with the parents of the other person and for both of you to bring your parents along on the first meeting.

Never Respond to E-Mail, Chat Comments, or Newsgroup Messages That Are Hostile, Belligerent, Inappropriate, or in Any Way Make You Feel Uncomfortable

It isn't your fault if you get a message that is mean or in any way makes you feel uncomfortable. If you get such a message, don't respond. Instead, show it to your parents or a trusted adult to see if there is anything you can do to make it stop. Sending a response just encourages the person.

Talk with Your Parents About Their Expectations and Ground Rules for Going Online

It's important that you and your parents are on the same channel when it comes to your online activities. This includes when you can go online, how long you can stay online, and what activities you an do online. Communicating with your parents doesn't mean that you have to give up your privacy. It just means that you come to an agreement based on mutual trust and understanding. While you're at it, perhaps you can help your parents better understand the Internet, what it can be used for, and how it is helpful for teens.

Guidelines for Parents

Talk with Your Teens About What They Can and Cannot Do Online

Be reasonable and set reasonable expectations.  Try to understand their needs interests and curiosity.  Remember what it was like when you were their age.

Be Open with Your Teens and Encourage Them to Come to You if they Encounter a Problem Online

If they tell you about someone or something they encountered, your first response should not be to blame them or take away their Internet privileges. Work with them to help them avoid problems in the future, and remember - how you respond will determine whether they confide in you the next time they encounter a problem and how they learn to deal with problems on their own.

Learn Everything You Can About the Internet

Ask your teen to show you what's cool. Have them show you great places for teens and fill you in on areas that you might benefit from as well. Make "surfing the net" a family experience. Use it to plan a vacation, pick out a movie, or check out other family activities. This may be one area where you get to be the student and your kid gets to be the teacher.

Check Out Blocking, Filtering and Ratings

As you may know, there are now services that rate web sites for content as well as filtering programs and browsers that empower parents to block the types of sites they consider to be inappropriate. These programs work in different ways. Some block sites known to contain objectionable material. Some prevent users from entering certain types of information such as their name and address. Other programs keep your kids away from chat rooms or restrict their ability to send or read E-mail. Generally these programs can be configured by the parent to block only the types of sites that the parent considers to be objectionable.

Whether or not it is appropriate to use one of these programs is a personal decision. If you do use such a program, you'll probably need to explain to your teen why you feel it is necessary. You should also be careful to choose a program whose criteria reflects your family's values. Be sure to configure it so that it doesn't block sites that you want your teen to be able to visit.

It is important to realize that filtering programs cannot protect your child from all angers in cyberspace. To begin with, no program can possibly block out every inappropriate site. What's more, it's possible, in some cases, for the programs to blocks sites that are appropriate. If you use a filtering program, you should re-evaluate it periodically to make sure it's working for your family.

Regardless of whether you use a filtering program, you should still be sure that your teen follows all of the basic rules listed in this brochure. Filtering programs are not a substitute for good judgment or critical thinking. With or without filters, kids and their parents need to be "net savvy."

This information has been collected from information supplied by a collaboration of the National Crime Prevention Council, the National Sheriff's Association and Radio Shack.