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Kids and Online Chat

Chat, Instant Messaging, Forums, and Internet Blogs

The well publicized worst-case scenario is that your kids get hunted and abducted or worse due to giving out too much information online to a predator, but this is actually very, very rare.

Most instances involving sexual predators were consensual, but that's hardly any comfort . And even if they never come into contact with a online predator, they can still get into legal or personal trouble from the things they post so let's look at some of the more common ways kids communicate on the net and how you should handle them.

Chat Dangers

Even if you teach your kids not to give out their address and name, it can take only a few minutes for a predator to get all the information he needs in a chatroom. What can a predator learn from this conversation?

Fleer: Hey Jason, wat u up 2?
8-ball: Yo! Nothin. Jus doin HW. Sux.
Fleer: You going 2 b at the game Fri?
8-ball: Nah. It's stupd. Antelopes v Badgers? Lame!
Fleer: Lol! Tru.
8-ball: U want 2 meet at the arcade?
Fleer: Junction Mall?
8-ball: ya
Fleer: Nah. Westside has mortal kombat 4
8-ball: ok. westside @7?
Fleer: k
8-ball: k. c-u then

If the predator is in the same chat room, he can see everything that's being said. There's more than enough information to find out the state and city being chatted about and he also knows the day, time, and place to find your kid. It's a date with disaster.

Even worse is the case where Fleer IS the predator. By this point, the bad guy already has a relationship with your kid and his trust. He's even convinced your son to meet with him. It's so easy to assume that just because someone sounds nice online means that they can be trusted. But you need to convince your kids that just because you chat with someone for a long time doesn't mean you know them.

Instant Messaging

Instant Messaging (MSN Mensenger, Yahoo Messenger, etc) or "IM" for short" is a fairly safe chat environment as long as you know who your kid's "chat buddies" are. Some advantages are:


  1. IM programs can be set to allow communications from anyone allowing you to "find friends" who share your interests. This usually involves entering some data about yourself into your profile, but I recommend against it. Not only does opening your IM this way make it no better than a standard chat room, it's actually worse since using the data entered, a bad guy will likely be able to guess some information about your kid (making it easier to strike up a conversation and build rapport). Also any IM user can instantly send a file (for example, a nude photo) to whoever they're talking to and there are different kinds of hacking attacks that can be launched through IM programs as well.

    As long as you keep their buddy list to family and friends (school friends, not "net" friends), you will be able to avoid most of these concerns.

  2. In another scenario, say your kid's friend's name is Danny and one day Danny sends your kid a message that he heard five guys talking at school about beating your kid up the next day. What do you do?

    First remember that just because their screenname says "Danny" doesn't mean it's actually him. Remember that anyone who's in Danny's house can get on that computer and talk to your kid as if they were Danny (parents, siblings, or any of his/their friends who happen to be visiting). And now that Account Hijacking is starting to become more common, it could be a complete stranger in control of the account.

    So is it a prank or a misunderstanding? Call Danny on the phone and find out.

Web Forums

Forums are basically a non-real-time chat. It's a valuable tool that your kids should know about, but teach them to be cautious about what they post.

An example of a forum conversation

A forum is where a user will post a comment of some kind and the other users of the forum will be able to respond with their own comments. Often a discussion will ensue, though it's possible for it to devolve into a fruitless flame war (where users make personal attacks and argue off-topic).

The advantage to forums is that they tend to be very focused on particular topics (for example, gaming, gardening, religion) and will attract users who are interested in those topics. They are also moderated which can keep out undersireable negative or inappropriate posters. Best of all, because what they write in a forum is permenant and viewable by anyone (including you), they are far less likely to post something you would disapprove of (especially if you warn them you'll be watching).

I happen to be a big fan of forums as a way to work out ideas or communicate with like-minded people. They're also very useful for research and getting answers to specific problems. As opposed to chat rooms, you rarely have to deal with annoying random chatters who ramble on about useless off-topic stuff (in a forum, those kinds of people usually get banned).

The one real disadvantage is what is posted lasts forever which can be a problem if they post something they'll regret. My advice for your kids (and anyone for that matter) is to always ask yourself "If I were to run for President one day, would this post come back to bite me?" before you hit the submit button.

Guide Navigation
|INDEX|next: Web Publishing and Kids
Having a conversation in public place is usually safe because people won't necessarily hear you or care what you say. When when you speak online in Chat, Instant Messaging, Forums, and Internet Forums, everything can change.
It might be fun to post information online about your thoughts or feelings, but that can come back to bite you.
Your kids are probably downloading music and movies. Be sure you handle the risks before it's too late!
Make sure you limit the damage your kids can do to your computer.

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