‘Safe Surf’ boosts awareness of online dangers


“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

In the good old days, this well-known childhood saying was usually a good enough defense against the meanest bully at recess. Then again, so was “nah, nah, nah, boo, boo” and sticking out your tongue and wiggling your fingers in the air before running for cover.

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In today’s modern computer era where kids spend more time on the Internet than they do on the school playground, words actually can hurt worse than sticks and stones. Today’s neighborhood troublemakers are called cyberbullies, or someone who uses the Internet, cell phone, or other high-tech toys to send or post text or images to try to hurt or embarrass another person.

Instead of the schoolyard, cyberbullies use cyberspace to act out their anger, revenge, or frustration. Sometimes, cyberbullies harass people for their own personal enjoyment and because they have too much time on their hands. In a recent case of extreme cyberbullying, a teen committed suicide allegedly because another student’s parent spread hateful rumors about her on the Internet. (If you want to know more about cyberspace and cyberbullying, just ask any 13-year-old computer junkie).

“The key to keeping our kids safe is prevention,” says Jennifer Bernstein, who coordinates an Internet awareness workshop called Safe Surf through the Child Abuse Prevention Program (CAPP) at Jewish Family & Children Service (JF &CS). Launched in the fall of 2006, Safe Surf has already reached about 15,000 parents, educators, and children (grades fourth through eighth), and is presented free of charge to local schools, synagogues, youth groups, churches, and other organizations.

“Our message to kids is to never say anything that they wouldn’t want their parents or teachers to see. Young people need to understand that they’re talking to an actual person online, and they might say things that they never would say to someone face to face, especially if they are feeling angry or emotional towards someone,” Bernstein says.

One of the best ways for kids to stay safe on the Internet, she adds, is to not share passwords with friends. Passwords are used for emails, instant messaging and social networking sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, and Bebo, which are popular ways for teens to connect with each other.

“In middle school, a best friend today may not be a best friend tomorrow. And they can break into your webpage and start spreading rumors,” warns Bernstein. “I heard of a boy who sent a bomb threat email to a school, using another person’s password.”

“That’s why kids should only share passwords with their parents. And parents should use the password only in case of an emergency, such as cyberbullying.”

Bernstein also reinforces that what children and teens do and say on the Internet now can influence their future. For example, “If they put an embarrassing photo of themselves on the Internet, they can erase it from their own computer, but their picture remains in cyberspace forever,” she says. “These inappropriate images can show up five years later and their high school principal or college administrator will find it.”

The Internet is typically used as a legitimate recreational and educational tool for students, but the uncensored cyber world is obviously a significant risk when not used wisely. In fact, in the last year, one in five children received a sexual solicitation online. Even more alarming, only one in four of them told their parents about it.

Fortunately, the Jewish community is taking brave steps to crack down on the victimization and sexual exploitation of children and teens online. For example, Safe Surf gives parents and their children the tools to protect themselves against Internet threats, such as cyberbullying, indecent solicitation, and identity theft.

What makes the Internet unsafe is that children and teens don’t always know for sure who is on the other end of the computer screen, explains Bernstein. That’s because people lie about their name, age, and identity, leaving an open door for sexual predators. In the worst case scenario, these criminals use the Internet to lure their victims, leaving parents helpless if they don’t know their children’s password to access evidence that can stop a potential kidnapping or life-threatening situation.

To keep young people under a watchful eye, Bernstein recommends using the computer in a public area of your home, such as the kitchen or family room. Children and teens are more discouraged from acting inappropriately on the Internet if their parents are nearby cooking dinner or watching television. Sometimes a computer user can accidentally open a pornographic website by unknowingly typing one wrong letter or word on the keyboard, which can be brought to a parent’s attention right away.

Bottom line, “Kids should not be talking on a computer with people who they don’t know in real life, especially adults, although it’s very easy to claim that they are younger,” says Bernstein. “Parents should go through their kids’ buddy list and ask who these people are, such as someone from soccer or a person in math class.”

“The number one message to teens is open communication with your family or a trusted adult,” says Bernstein. “The more you talk about these issues, the safer you will be.”

Another precaution parents can consider is installing monitoring software that records every keystroke on the computer. “Parenting control software is not 100 percent guaranteed,” says Bernstein, “and nothing substitutes parents and their kids talking to each other. Some people might think monitoring software is intrusive, but then again how much privacy does a 12 year-old really need?”

For more information about the Safe Surf program, contact Jennifer Bernstein, at 314-812-9378 or [email protected].

“Mishegas of Motherhood” is the creation of Ellie S. Grossman, a St. Louis freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom who never stays home. Currently, she is obsessing over the address labels for her son’s bar mitzvah invitations, so please feel free to send any advice to: [email protected] or visit her website at www.mishegasofmotherhood.com.