It’s inevitable: Your child probably will be approached by a stranger online. So how do you help him/her prepare?
Teach Them The Definition of A Stranger
One of the most important things you can do to educate your children about interacting with strangers online is defining exactly what “stranger” is and means. Tell your kids that a “stranger” is someone they don’t know well–or, if you really want to restrict the boundaries, perhaps for a very young child–tell him/her that a stranger is anyone outside of his/her immediate family. Emphasize that strangers can be people that the child sees everyday–mailmen, school bus drivers, etc. Also emphasize that these people don’t all mean harm, but that the child should do his/her best to stay clear if they’re not friends. For online purposes, since identities are much harder to prove or reveal, a “stranger” is anyone that a parent doesn’t define otherwise. Make sure your child knows your screenname, her own screenname, and the usernames of grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, etc.–most of all, what a screenname actually is. If your child can’t remember all these, post them in a list near the computer.
Define the Limits of Conversation
Once your child knows who or what a “stranger” is, make sure to outline a set of acceptable conversation topics should he/she come across one online. Remind your child not to give out personal information–phone numbers, her real name, addresses, name of her school–to anyone online. Definite inappropriate conversations. It’s best to tell your child not to interact with these people at all, but in case they forget, or are lured in somehow, identifying “red flags” in online speech can help her shut down the conversation right away. And tell your child not to fill out forms online, either.
Roleplaying is a great way to show your kids what is and isn’t acceptable behavior online. One of the benefits of roleplaying is showing that anyone can easily pretend to be a friend by being “nice” to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to share intimate details with that person. Act or write out an online conversation (or actually IM your child, if she has instant messaging software or uses a social networking site) and invent a number of “what if?” scenarios to explore. Use actual IM speak and online slang when you do this.
Don’t Let Them Accept Anything Online
Tell your kids that accepting anything online from a stranger–whether it be a photo, video, link, e-mail, etc.–is absolutely unacceptable. (If they’re not sure what an e-mail attachment is, give them an example.) Explain to them what “downloading” is, where that material goes, and how it could be harmful (in a physical security sense and an online security sense)–better yet, don’t allow them to download anything at all to the hard drive.
Make An Internet Contract
The FBI and many local police departments recommend making an online family Internet contract and displaying it in full view, near the main computer. The contract should contain the basic do’s and don’t's of Internet use for the entire family, and address the posting of photos and personal information, lying about online abuse, etc. Make it as broad as possible and agree on (age-appropriate) consequences for breaking the contract. (A few examples are here and here.)
Remember: Having a frank conversation with your child about the dangers of interacting with strangers online can be difficult, but a preemptive discussion about safety will save any bad, possibly post-traumatic confrontations later.