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Safety First for Children on Perilous Information Highway

Safety First for Children on Perilous Information Highway

By Morgan Hensley

For many, the words “summer vacation” conjure a nostalgia for days filled with fireworks, blockbuster movies, and lounging by the pool with friends before heading back to the classroom in the fall.

In this online age, youngsters face worse threats than sunburn.

“Parents have this sense that this lovely little town is Pleasantville,” said Matt Foosaner, whose “Keeping Your Kids Safe Online” seminar teaches parents the basics of cyber safety. “What parents don’t understand is that, at any given time, there are 750,000 predators online.”

Foosaner, who lives in Middleburg and has children at Hill School, has served on the Law Enforcement Committee and Developing Committee for the Board of Directors at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children since 2005, and spent 23 yearsin telecommunications, satellite, and cable technologies.

The idea for a seminar came to him at a cocktail party.

“The conversation drifted to cyber safety,” he said, “and I realized how
little parents knew about the technology they were putting in their children’s hands. Kids understand the devices better than parents, but not the threats, permanence, or their vulnerability. Guess I turned into a little bit of a downer at those cocktail parties.”

Foosaner saw an opportunity to not only educate parents, but to possibly save the lives of children. To spread this awareness, he held a meet-and-greet at Hill School in 2010. Though only 15 parents attended, his presentation and question and answer session afterward blossomed into a seminar. To illustrate the dangers of the internet, he uses a simple metaphor.

“The internet is the ‘Information Highway,’ but unlike an actual highway, there aren’t cops to monitor it, no speed limits, no driver’s licenses,” he said. “Allowing your child to have unfettered, unmonitored internet access is like allowing them to ride their bike down I-66.”

The lurking dangers are difficult to grasp, especially in a territory as poorly understood, even by many tech-
savvy adults. Threats are not signaled
by sirens, but by silence. “The dangers are in your home, especially during quiet time,” Foosaner said. “By opening up your network to your kids, you’re potentially opening it to predators looking to steal your financial information or solicit your children. There are nefarious people in the dark corners of the internet, more than we’d like to admit, with deeply flawed minds using the same technology as ISIS.”

As frightening as the statistics and figures may be, Foosaner’s message is a hopeful and a distinct call to arms. Before kids go back to school, Foosaner asks that parents adopt some ground rules.

“No unmonitored, closed-door time with their (phone, laptop, or tablet] devices,” he advised. “Share their passwords with you. Install a monitoring software. If it seems invasive like Big Brother, I remind them, ‘You’re ultimately responsible for the safety and health of your children.’”

Communication, as in allrelationships, is especially important regarding children and their online presence. He encourages parents to “aspire to have a relationship with their child in which they can tell you anything. Listen first. Talk through it and see what lessons are learned before deciding on any repercussions.”

In addition to explaining the threats, foster a sense of online propriety and respect. “Make sure they understand the need to keep their hands to themselves, online and elsewhere,” he said.

Finally, it’s wise to lead by example. Parents are barraged by work emails during off-hours. To counter this, he suggested experimenting with family-wide media blackouts.

“When you walk in the door, the phone goes down,” Foosaner said. “You verbally engage, eye to eye. Read, do work around the house, maybe something crazy like play a game of Scrabble.”

Whatever it is, it’s probably best to start small. Not only are children safer, but studies indicate that limited screen time increases communication skills and healthy family dynamics.

The bottom line: If we tell our
children to look both ways before crossing the street, we also should instruct them to do the same when exploring the frequently hazardous Information Highway.

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