Thursday, December 4, 2008

Your Kids & Online Safety: The Shocking Truth (Warning: DISTURBING CONTENT)

Two children are at their computers, chatting.

Little Ruggles is chatting with his classmates, in an online chatroom set up by a school official, a teacher, principal, etc. Only kids in his class, to whom he is known and all are known to him - and the teacher, who is always present during chat time, use the chat room. Ruggles and his parents feel confident that the presence of the teacher, and the fact that he is chatting with his classmates, many of whom are neighbors and friends, all work together to make their child's online time a safe experience. In fact, Ruggles has been taught, and is only allowed to chat online with friends and neighbors his parents know. He likes being able to talk to his friends online, and make plans for real-life play dates.

Little Ratson is chatting with a complete stranger, about absolutely terrible things. He is using a nick related to a popular cartoon. Nothing in his "profile" gives any clue as to his real name or location, nor does anything in any data accessible to the stranger.** Nothing on his hard disk contains anything that might link any of his online personas to the real little boy. Ratson cannot remember a time without the internet, one of the first things he learned, right up there with not talking to strangers in public places, and remembering to use the bathroom when he needed to poop, was to never, ever reveal any real life info to people on the internet, that offline and online are always to be kept just as separate as his dirty big boy pants from the clean ones. He enjoys making up different identities. Sometimes, like today, he might be that favorite cartoon character. Other times he is a fantastic creature from outer space. But he would never, ever be Ratson or Sonrat, or Rat Sonic, or be from anywhere near Townville, only other planets.

Which child is safer?

Almost all parents are going to read the first sentence about what Ratson is doing and say Ruggles.

And they would be wrong. Potentially dangerously, tragically wrong.

Ratson is the one who is playing it safe, and Ruggles is the one who is engaging in dangerous online activity.

Q) But wait - didn't you say all the kids in his class are there, and the teacher?

A) I did, and they are all in more danger from their online chatting than Ratson.

It is precisely because their real life identities are known that they are in danger. Who is standing behind that little neighbor child, as he chats to yours? Who may have obtained unauthorized access to another classmate - even the teacher's computer, and thus gained access to email addresses and online nicks that are connected to real life children in a known location?

The Internets are here to stay. They are, and will continue to be, a part of your child's life.

The priority we give, and the zeal with which we teach our children about internet safety and security should not only equal, but surpass, the urgency and intensity we bring to bear when we instill values and practices with regard to toilet training.

Q) Well, OK, but couldn't that bad person who was standing behind the chair and watching the chat be present when he goes over to play with the little neighbor children at their houses?

A) Yes. There is always that chance that a bad person may be visiting even our nicest neighbors, who have no idea that he is a bad person.

No matter how much we might want to, it is not possible to protect our children 100% from every possibility that a bad person might see them, be in the same place they are. You could, and here are people who do, take drastic measures, such as never allowing the child to visit any neighbors or friends, go on school trips, or even school itself!

However, most parents want their kids to enjoy, within the bounds of common sense safety precautions, "normal" childhood experiences, like learning to play and share with other kids, participate in group activities etc.

That's what this is about - a very important common sense safety precaution.

Q) Sorry to interrupt, but what is so bad about the school chat room? All the other kids are doing it, and we are all in agreement that we can't protect them from every single possibility of every unsafe thing!

A) There are two reasons. The first has to do with a basic principle of security and safety practices that we all employ:

Layering. We don't just keep our bank card in a zipped compartment of our wallet, we keep that wallet in a zipped purse, and we keep that purse attached to our person, or at the very least, in our sight or under lock and key, no matter where we go. There's three layers right there.

And should someone manage to get that card anyway, our bank has even more layers to protect us.

Layering means that not only do we lock our door when we go on vacation, we make arrangements for someone to come by and turn lights on and off, collect mail, water plants, turn on the TV, make it look like someone is home!

The second reason that school chat room is more dangerous than an anonymous chat with the most awful stranger you, as a parent, can possibly imagine, is that information in real life, while it has the potential to travel, is much more likely to stay put, or to travel to a dead end, whereas information on the internet is potentially available to millions of people - forever.

That cannot be said of your debit card, even if you drop it in front of the ATM (unless, of course, someone puts the data on the internet)

You may trust the teacher, you may trust the neighbor family, but can you say the same of the entity that obtains unauthorized access to their computer?

So not only does participation in that non-anonymous school chat room take away A layer of protection, the layer it takes away is a pretty damn important one!

The vilest person in the world, as long as he does not know your child's name, your name, or where your child is, even if he would like to, cannot harm your child.

Thus it is Little Ratson who is safe, and Little Ruggles who is playing the danger game.

Q) But what about the emotional danger to Little Ratson, in there talking about terrible things with a bad person?

A) That is a valid concern, and one that deserves, and will get, its own topic. There are tools you can give your child that will help with that, even prevent it, but be warned that these tools are for your child, not you, and you will not like them one bit.

But for now, both you and everybody else who can just see somebody standing behind that chair need to know that while no, we cannot eliminate every single possibility that a bad person will obtain access to your child, there is a lot that we CAN do, things that ARE within our realistic and sustainable control.

And for that reason I am starting with the most basic and immediate kind of danger, with the goal of maintaining Little Ratson physically alive and whole, and thus available as a subject for concern about the emotional danger of talking to the bad person.


Start early. When they learn to talk, when their hands are first able to grab a mouse, when they develop that first sense of "needing a clean diaper," when you give those first basic lessons about Stranger Danger, make internet safety part of that, just as much, even more important than remembering to tell somebody about that diaper, more important than not pooping on the Authentic antique Isfahan in the living room.


The internet is a wonderful place to play and learn. It is especially wonderful because on the internet, you can be anybody or anything, you can imagine! You can be a tiger, a dragon, a space man, a never-before heard of creature that you invented. You can be anybody but you.

Because on the internet, you, the real life you, is a secret. So are mami and papi and little sister. And because where you live is also a most important family-only offline secret thing to talk about that means you can be from any planet you want! You can be from a star, or a galaxy, or a constellation, real ones, or ones you made up! Or you could be from inside a shoe that goes around the world like a moon or a satellite!

You can be as many people or creatures as you want to be. You can even be a teenager, because it is the magical internet!

Of course, the identities you invent are make-believe, pretend ones, so online things have to stay always 100% even-more-important-than-not-pooping-on-the-Authentic-antique-Isfahan separate from real life, offline things.

That is what makes it all magic and fun! That's what makes it big kid, grown-up stuff, getting to have exactly the same rules as mami and papi!


Nicks should have no relation to any part of the child's name, your name, a sibling's name, or any real place name.


Same as nicks. Even if someone "hacks" your child's password, they will not be hacking into anything that could be extrapolated into real life contact info.

And that is pretty much your basic arsenal. Absolute separation of online and offline. Anything that compromises that, the answer is no. Anything that does not compromise that, go for it!

Yes. There in the back. I can see you've been dying to say something.

Q) If all the kids in his class are doing the chat room, and I don't let him do it, isn't that the same thing as those people who homeschool their child and never let him visit the family across the street or go anywhere or do anything?
A) No. You let him visit the family across the street all the time. And he goes to school with the other kids, plays on a community sports team, takes dance and karate lessons, and participates in children's activities sponsored by one or more local faith-based entities. The only thing all the other kids are doing that he can't do are those non-anonymous chat rooms.

Q) Won't that be causing an issue, calling undue attention to him, making him weird?
A) To the first two, possibly, but only momentarily. As much as the other kids like him, they are still kids, and with no offense meant with respect to how charming and popular your child is, they will soon be much too busy chatting with each other to mourn his absence nearly as much as they ought to, and the only reason we forgive them for that is because they have the consolation of coming over to play with him once chat time is over.

And no, it will not make him weird. You will have to find other ways to do that, and no doubt you will do a fine job.

Q) Come on, isn't this a little extreme? I mean all the kids have each other's emails, and they are texting, so they have his phone number, and their cell phones can connect to the internet, they can even take photos of him with their phones and put those on the internet.
A) Ah, yes! Thanks for reminding me. No photos on the internet, ever. Not of him, not of you, not of siblings, not of your house, or your garden, or the patio, pool, or the new grill. No, not the old grill, either. Nor the beautiful skyline of your town or city, nor any of its attractions, even if it is Tokyo and who could ever possibly find you there? Would you really want to find out?

And double Thanks for making a very valid point. It is indeed possible for a classmate - or a stranger in the street - to use their phone to take photos of your child and put them on the internet. They can even run them through Photoshop, and put your child's head on the body of another child, a child who is doing things even more awful than what Little Ratson was talking about with that terrible person.

And there are some very very sick people, as well as some just plain bad people who deliberately seek out even the most innocent photos and writings of identified, non-anonymous children, for their own use, as well as for sale. Just like we have our forums and groups for sharing information, so do they.

But let's get back to your question. You said something about extreme? You wanted to remove a layer of protection that you CAN control?

Yes, I probably misunderstood you. You are right, the acoustics in here do suck.

Q) The only chat room my child is allowed to go to is run by the Temple/Mosque/Church/Drum Circle. I can understand having doubts about the school, but -
A) The danger is not related to the worthiness or trustworthiness of the institution. The danger has to do with your child's real life contact info being on machines you can't control.

Q) This is rEdiculous! His name and our names are already in the school computer.
A) Well, for the sake of argument, let's say that all those records are not only kept on a machine with a modem, but on the very same machine the teacher uses for after-school online chats.

Once you have gotten over the sudden realization that your school is an internet security hot mess, scroll up a couple of paragraphs - no, never mind, I'll paste it. "You wanted to remove a layer of protection that you CAN control?"

Q) OK, OK, I give up. Just stop giving me nightmares. As if I don't have enough of them already.

So what exactly do I SAY to his teachers? To the other parents? What reason do I give for why HE, out of all the other kids, why HE has to be the ONLY one that is not allowed to participate in a school-established, school-run, and school-supervised chat room?

A) If you have a printer, you could put a copy of this in with the note.

Now that you have resolved to do what you CAN to save your own child from being harmed, it can't hurt to at least try to pay it forward. Who knows? You just might save someone else's child.

** To maximize security, privacy and anonymity on your child's computer, you will need to enlist the aid of a nerd. I can say this without qualification, because if YOU had the skillz to do it, you would have done it already - just as you would have done it to your own - the day you first brought it home.

Q) Hold up! I just wanted to ask one more quick question. Do you even HAVE kids?
A) I do not. What my (Living Saint) husband and I do have is an (Exceptionally Intelligent and Advanced) godson to whom I have certain obligations, thus this subject is one that I began working on the day my sister-in-law peed on a stick.

Our godson is now ten, and enjoys a rich online life in accordance with the principles set out above. I have no idea what terrible things he may talk about with strangers, outside certain contingencies relating to the very important and useful tools I have given him, and which will be coming to you soon.

(We also have an alarming number of young nieces and nephews, and, although I can scarcely believe my fingers as they type this, the great-nieces and nephews have begun to trickle in, and all of them, like our godson, practice internet safety as taught by Aunty to their parents and to them, starting the minute their mother emerges triumphant from the bathroom, stick held proudly aloft).

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