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Protecting Children Online Part 5 of 6

written by: •edited by: Brian Nelson•updated: 4/20/2009

Discusses the safety of teenagers in chat rooms

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    Chatrooms and Children

    Chatrooms are probably the single most dangerous internet place for teenagers because all the conversations happen in real time just as if your child was speaking to a stranger on the telephone. If a webcam or camera is attached to the computer or mobile phone, pictures along with text and sometimes sound of the conversation can be exchanged in real time just as we use the telephone to speak.

    It is important in chatrooms, even if your child thinks everyone there is their age, should not say anything they would not say to you or grandparents. Also, there is no guarantee that in a chatroom for a particular age group about a particular topic the conversation will stay within the boundaries of the specified topic or that younger or older people will not be participating in the conversation. If any online situation makes your child feel uncomfortable, they can close their browser and leave.

    Predators appreciate chatrooms because they can pretend to be whomever they want and manipulate the conversation however they want. They do not have to worry about protective eyes watching their prey in the store, park, or neighborhood. Remind your teenager never to make arrangements to meet someone they met online without you being present at both the arranging and the meeting in a public place such as a mall or park. Some chatrooms have monitors who try to maintain order and decency. But, there is not a monitor when you bring up a separate screen for a private chatroom. Remind your child never to say anything they would not say in public or in the presence of most grandparents.

    Chatrooms are available at websites and through online video games. To help parents understand and cope with their children using the internet, remember the basic rule: apply your family values and rules to the internet. If your child is not old enough to date, then they probably should not be in a chatroom or using text messaging without your personal supervision. This is not a reflection on your child. When chatroom users register before entering the chatroom, there is not a test to determine if they are providing correct information about their gender, intent or age. The majority of chatroom users are honorable people. Most chatroom users have good intentions. Unfortunately, it only takes one bad person one time to jeopardize the safety of your child.

    Visiting a chatroom is not different than visiting an auditorium with many different rooms having discussions going on all at the same time. There are discussions for any topic with any group of persons. One person can be in more than one chatroom at the same time. Everyone knows everyone else’s username, like wearing nametags except that everyone can read each nametag whenever they want no matter where they are in the room. A general rule for unsupervised chatrooms is if your child is not old enough to stay home without a babysitter overnight or be on an unsupervised date, they are not yet old enough to visit chatrooms without a parent or adult supervising the computer screen.

    This is not because your child can’t be trusted. It is because anyone can pretend to be anything they want to be on the internet. A stranger can pretend to be someone your child’s age but if you were to see them, you would know they were much older and had no business being where they met your child. Adults are usually able to recognize these people when talking with them for a few minutes a lot sooner than someone younger. Even if your child is at a "safe" or supervised chatroom, there is no guarantee strangers with bad intentions will not be there. Don’t depend on the website, chatroom, or moderator (if one is there) to let you know when a person with bad intentions is around. Trust and respect yourself and your children. If someone makes them uncomfortable, asks too many questions, or doesn’t ‘seem right’, block the user’s name and leave. There are other chatrooms that can be more suitable if your child is allowed to be there.

    Decide if your child is responsible enough to recognize the potential dangers inherent in chatrooms especially with a broadband connection where pictures and text can be transmitted back and forth in real time. Explain to your children not to respond or talk to strangers in person, chatrooms, text messaging, and emails. For children that have your permission to visit chatrooms the following are suggested settings to help prevent communication from possibly deviant individuals:

    • Block all users your children do not have your permission to communicate with. These people are everyone except the people in their contact or buddy lists.
    • Don’t allow other users to view your online status in the chat program.
    • Have the program ask if you want to accept an attachment or file from another user. If you just met the user or do not know them, do not accept the attachment or file because the content may be unsuitable for your child. Also, a file may be an infector even from someone you know who is unaware their computer has an infection. Remember to use your anti-virus software before opening an attachment or file.
    • Don’t allow other users to automatically add your family to their contact list.
    • Don’t allow multi-recipient messages or webpages.
    • Disable “random chat."
    • Hide your IP (internet protocol) address.
    • Instruct children to never leave the public area of the chatroom if they are allowed to be there. Chatrooms offer users one-on-one chats with other users so that chat monitors and other users can’t read their conversations.
    • Don’t include any personal information when you complete the registration such as full name, address, phone number, or hobbies. If you must list a town or state, type in the word "Region." Be sure to use a disposable email address with a username that is different from your logon with your internet service provider.
    • Password protect the settings for children.
    • Respect other users. Don’t use all capital letters because that indicates shouting. Don’t use nasty words in public or in a chatroom. If you see a "busy" next to a person’s name, respect them by not disturbing them till they are no longer busy. Use emoticons when the reader can possibly misinterpret written words.