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How to protect your children from cyberstalking

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by Staff Writer

These days, it seems as if cyberstalking is on everyone’s minds, with high-profile cases leading many parents to fear for their children’s safety on the Internet. There’s no doubt that cyberstalking is a serious issue that affects many families, with children particularly vulnerable.

There has been a dramatic increase in reports of online stalking, as social networking websites such as Facebook become more popular and the number of cell phones with email and Web capabilities explodes. This technology makes it easier than ever for children to stay connected with friends, which is often a good thing.

Unfortunately, social uses of the Internet are also associated with a lowering of online privacy, allowing access to those who might wish to harass or harm your child. What can you as a parent do to prevent cyberstalking, without impinging on your children’s sense of privacy and independence?

This article will give a few “cyberparenting” tips on how to protect your children from cyberstalking and how to maintain control over your child’s positive online reputation.

Cyberstalking is difficult to identify and to prevent

The relative anonymity of the Web has created a new type of stalker, one who uses online personal data as a weapon. Cyberstalking can involve friends or strangers breaking into your child’s email or Facebook account and snooping around. It can also escalate into something more tangible and frightening. So, it can be difficult to know how to protect your children from cyberstalking.

What is cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking involves repeated and often anonymous harassing of a type that causes your child to fear for his or her personal safety or for the status of his or her online reputation. Although cyberstalking often includes the intent to do physical harm, it can involve any repeated online actions that make the recipient feel uncomfortable. Rumors, accusations, and even personal emails and videos are easily spread across the Internet. Online actions that may be legal and indeed perfectly innocuous turn into cyberstalking when repeated maliciously.

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Cyberstalking often takes the form of text messages, email, and harassment through social networking websites. Although websites such as Facebook claim to have automated systems to detect and block suspicious or potentially dangerous behavior, in many cases cyberstalking involves someone the child knows, such as a friend, a classmate or a neighbor.

Why is it hard to identify?

Child victims of cyberstalking worry not only about personal safety but also about damage to their reputation among school-age peers. Parents often have difficulty identifying when cyberstalking is taking place. If your child begins to avoid certain people and social groups––even school entirely––due to others‘ malicious online actions, the line has been crossed.

How effective is alerting school authorities or the police? Although cyberstalking is illegal across the US, it generally gets less attention from the authorities than more tangible crimes, such as physical harassment and attacks. This is because of the newness of this type of crime and because many police departments aren’t yet well trained or equipped to deal with the exigencies of digital evidence.

Documenting and preventing cases of cyberstalking is often left up to private responsible parties, namely the parents. Yet you as a parent are often not given the tools to manage your child’s everyday life, much less his or her online reputation and safety.

Protect your children from cyberstalking while permitting Internet access

The benefits of Internet access

There’s a lot that’s positive about the Internet. The Web offers a wealth of valuable information that would otherwise be difficult to access. Research materials are available at the click of a mouse. Webpages of school clubs allow planned activities to be monitored, changed and confirmed in real time.

Without Internet tools at their fingertips, many children feel excluded from their peer circle. They’re unable to access basic homework materials and to engage in the same social activities as their friends. What can you do when a cyberstalking case emerges in your child’s life, and the negatives of the Web begin to dramatically outweigh the positives?

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What preventive actions should you take?

Certainly, there are simple preventive actions that should be taken, such as using an Internet filter, keeping the computer in a public part of the house and reminding your child of the dangers of chatting with strangers on the Web. But these measures only work before cyberstalking begins, and they don’t address the fundamental problem that repeated harassment often involves classmates and acquaintances. Your child may be afraid to speak to you directly about an online situation that involves people he or she knows and must confront on a daily basis.

Many parents who fear their child is being stalked online consider tracking their child’s Internet activity. This presents its own dilemma: You would not want anyone to track your own online activity, and you certainly don’t want to destroy parental trust by monitoring your child’s every action secretly. Often, even if you do suspect cyberstalking, you don’t know where to look online for potential sources.