Online Safety

on November 15, 2007

My oldest daughter wants a MySpace page. The first time she wanted one, she was 12 and she did it on her own, then because she’s a basically good kid and a good Catholic, her guilt festered and less than 24 hours later, she told me. I praised her for her honesty, didn’t punish her (as I would have done if I discovered the page on my own), and promptly deleted her account.

Now she’s almost 14 and she just learned I joined the ranks of MySpace. She doesn’t think it’s fair. She pointed out all the safety measures, that she could friend me and I’ll know exactly what she’s doing and saying. I told her no. My MySpace page is all about business: if I weren’t a published author, I wouldn’t get an account. I reminded her that she talks to her friends every day on the phone, she has IM (on a central, family computer) and she has email.

Maybe I’m not being fair. Maybe she’ll go and get one on her own again, just be sneakier than she was the last time. I still think the guilt will eat at her and she’ll come clean, as she’s done time and again when she knows she’s done something wrong. The big problem is: what if she doesn’t think something she’s doing or saying is wrong? What if it’s relatively innocuous, but I, as someone older and wiser and with a lot more knowledge about the dangers of the Internet, can see that that seemingly innocent behavior can do if left unchecked?

I’m pretty blunt with my kids about crime. SPEAK NO EVIL was loosely based on a true life case where the victim met her killer on her personal blog. In FEAR NO EVIL, I took a compilation of girls meeting people in person who they first met online, highlighting the fact that you really DON’T know who you are talking to in cyberspace.

If I could sit down and monitor their Internet activity 24/7 on a computer in the bedroom so make sure that nothing they say or do gives away their identity or location, then maybe . . . maybe . . . I’d let them spread their wings in cyberspace. But it’s not just people knowing who they are. It’s strangers talking to them because we do not know who those people are. They could be normal kids. They could be fifty-year-old sex offenders. WE DON’T KNOW.

There’s no reason for a kid to have a MySpace page. Maybe I’m being overly strict (though people who know me know that I’m pretty easy-going about parenting), but this is one of the few areas I have drawn the line.

I don’t talk about my kids online. I call them generically by their rank: Brennan #1, Brennan #4, etc. I don’t need to tell anyone their names or where they go to school or post their adorable pictures online.

But for the first time this week, I realized that simply by the virtue of who I am, people can figure out who they are.

I received a disturbing email. The subject line was “Your Daughter.” It had come through the form on my website. The gentleman said, “Do you have a daughter named XXXX who goes to XXXXX?”

He signed it with his first name. I had no idea who he was. I almost just deleted it, but instead responded something like, “Do I know you? You didn’t sign your name.”

He replied with his full name and he is someone I’ve been “talking” to online for over a year. He seems normal and legitimate. He lives locally and is trying to get published. He’s a nice guy. Online. But for the first time I realized that people may not be who they say they are even when they’re talking to me. He gave me his daughter’s name and I asked my daughter if she knew the girl. She did.

But as my husband points out, the guy could have a friend with a daughter at the same school and using that important to learn more about my daughter.

I’m pretty comfortable that this guy isn’t after my daughter, but I’m still not talking about her with people.

Still, for the first time I realized that no matter how safe I am with my kid’s activities online, their identity still may not be protected simply because I am becoming known. There’s been a couple local articles written about me, I speak all the time, and Allison Brennan is, in fact, my real name.

I’m not a celebrity, but I’m becoming a public figure, at least locally. And while I’ll do everything I can to protect my kids, I just realized it’s gotten a little harder than I had imagined.

My household rules for Internet use:

1) Family computer is in a central location.
2) No MySpace or similar accounts.
3) Mom and dad know all email passwords
4) Any kid sites where there is posting allowed must be approved by mom or dad. (There are a couple which are fully moderated.)
5) No kid is allowed to clear the history (this included IMs.)
6) I check the history periodically to make sure they are playing by the rules.
7) Parental safety is set to “moderate.” (if you set it to strict, a lot of religious and political sites are restricted. When they’re doing research for papers or just want to do a comparison on candidates which I strongly encourage, or learning about an issue, they’re getting the most watered down sites.)
8) The kids know the rules (ad nauseum) about giving out personal information online.

As they get older, I’ll loosen up a bit. The internet is a crucial part of life now. But my oldest is not quite 14. She doesn’t need full access to cyberspace. She’s not missing out on anything.

So be safe out there.

If you haven’t seen my new book trailer for KILLING FEAR, it’s live here:

If you don’t know about our contest, check out the rules and the great prizes here!

Do you know anyone who was solicited online? Anyone who had a bad experience? Do you know anyone who has met their better half online and lived happily ever after?

(BTW, the Internet can be a truly wonderful place–if you know what you’re doing and are careful. I know people who have met online and gone on to be best friends–and some even got married. I just don’t think it’s a place for kids.)