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Growing Up Online

Online Self-Defense

Martial Arts Principles for Cyberspace

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Teaching kids to protect themselves is something most parents do without much thought. It starts with baby-proofing the house and moves smoothly into making kids aware of dangers "out-there" so they can avoid them. Many parents go a step further and enroll kids in self-defense classes so they'll know what to do if they find themselves in threatening situations.

The same sequence makes sense online. Because young children don't yet have the judgment to protect themselves, parents should "baby proof" their interactive environment. Children under six should have computer playtime only with software that has been carefully selected by a parent. A list of 100 best programs for children is available from Children's Technology Review (www.childrenssoftware.com)

Early elementary school children need strict rules about what websites they are allowed to visit. Point your child toward sites run by respected organizations such as PBS (pbskids.org), National Geographic (kids.nationalgeographic.com) or the Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org/explore/). For other ideas, browse the listings at kidsites.com.

Children under 13 should do social networking only on sites that are monitored by adults. Older elementary children will also benefit from a filter that keeps kids from inadvertently stumbling into spaces where they may be at risk. The simplest option is a family-friendly search engine. Even Google now has a SafeSearch setting. To find it, log into a Google account, click on settings, click on Safe Search and the select Lock SafeSearch.

Although external controls are essential when children are young, eventually kids want—and need-—more independence. Around the time kids get a first cell phone, parents should start teaching online self-defense skills that will help them avoid threats whenever possible and respond effectively if they do find themselves in difficult situations. Here are some martial arts principles that readily translate into cyberspace.

Project power. A good martial artist exudes an aura of confidence and strength that makes fighting unnecessary. Help your child develop both a sense of worth and a community of genuine friends. Point out the differences between the close ties of face-to-face friendships and the loose ties of online relationships. Face-to-face friends will discount rumors and slurs because they know they aren't true. They will also stand up for each other and help each other solve problems. Being part of that kind of community gives kids a sense of self-assurance that is an excellent defense against predators of all kinds.

Protect your core. In martial arts, the core includes the vital organs. Online, the core is private information, which could be used to steal a child's identity, harm his reputation or put him in physical danger. Many young people become quite sophisticated about knowing what can safely be shared with social networks that include friends who are both close and casual. Still, it's worth reminding kids, pre-teens especially, to think carefully about posting information that could be used to embarrass them or that would help a potential stalker track their activities. Children should also learn from an early age that they should never share passwords, social security numbers or other identifiers with anyone—even a best friend.

Avoid provocation. Martial arts are called self-defense because they are employed in response to the aggression of others. Unfortunately, many young people initiate aggression online—sometimes without intending to provoke. In a misguided effort to impress their peer group, young people are often flippant, sarcastic and even cruel. Parents can help by talking about how kids can show respect even when they are teasing or trying to be funny. Encourage your child to think through what they say or write online from the point of others. For example, using "gay" as an epithet may be painful to a peer who is struggling with questions of sexual identity.

Stay calm. One of the first rules of self defense is that you can't respond effectively to an attack if you're angry or flustered. Talk to your child in advance about how they would handle online harassment or bullying. Ask "what-if" questions to help them think through problems before they occur. What if someone posts something mean on your wall? What if someone sends a message pretending to be you? What if someone forwards a photo or message that was supposed to be private? What if someone writes nasty things about you (or a friend) on a website? Point out that sometimes the best response is to ignore hurtful, ignorant remarks. An angry, emotional rebuttal is likely to escalate the problem because it can be circulated so easily. Be sure your child knows how to de-friend someone who doesn't deserve the label.

Warn your opponent. Sometimes online aggressors don't realize they've stepped over the line. Peers, in particular, deserve a private warning that their behavior is hurtful. The website www.thatsnotcool.com suggests ways young people can deflect unacceptable online contact especially from members of the opposite sex. Your child can also send the other person a private e-mail or text asking for a simple change in behavior. "Don't text me" or "Please delete the message you posted."

Respond. This is where online self-defense differs from martial arts. Instead of retaliating online, kids should take their concerns about online conflict into the real world where they can get advice from trusted adults. Parents make this more likely when they 1) encourage children to come to them with things that make them uncomfortable online and 2) don't overreact when they share their problems. Teach kids to copy, save or print problematic messages, photos or videos, especially if they are threatening in any way. Help them contact the customer service department for the Web site or the ISP (internet service provider) where the messages were posted. In some cases, the management may delete the offensive content or ban the person who posted them. Documentation is also likely to spur school officials and even the police to take action.

As much as we may want to protect our children, we do them a disservice if we try to insulate them from every risk. Instead, good parents gradually empower children to handle their own problems by teaching them to recognize, avoid and, when necessary, confront the bad people. Then, instead of feeling like victim, your child will experience all of the confidence of a samurai who knows he or she can handle whatever life may bring.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and the Internet for over fifteen years. She is the mother of three computer-savvy kids. Other Growing Up Online columns appear on her website www.growing-up-online.com.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., has been writing about families and computers since 1993. Other columns about are available at www.growing-up-online.com.

Tags: Parenting

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