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Keeping kids safe online: Speakers at Willmar Middle School discuss internet safety, parenting

West Central Tribune - 3/20/2017

March 20--WILLMAR -- Parents who might be new to using the internet or to U.S. culture got some advice Saturday at the Willmar Middle School Family Day.

The Saturday morning gathering at the Middle School offered advice for online safety and for positive parenting.

Kathy Hotakainen, community outreach specialist with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, offered some cautionary tales and some practical tips for parents who want to keep their children safe online.

Willmar's schools provide iPads for all students in grades 6-12, and many other school districts provide tablet or laptop computers for their students, too.

"Everybody is doing stuff online," Hotakainen said, so it's good for parents to be aware of some of the dangers out there and how to help their children.

A good rule is that "if you wouldn't want your principal or your grandma to see it," don't put it online, she said.

In the course of doing research online, she said, it is possible to mistakenly click on an adult website. Parents should talk to their children and instruct kids to come to them if that happens.

"As parents, you can't freak," she said. "Stay calm, and talk about it." If a parent becomes very upset, the child will be less likely to say anything if it happens again, she added.

Sometimes kids can post inappropriate content themselves without giving it much thought.

Teenagers who post photos of themselves drinking or using drugs can affect their reputations and their futures, she said.

She suggested parents remind their children to never share passwords, home addresses, cell phone numbers or email addresses.

Her office hears from schools with children as young as fifth grade sexting -- sending or exchanging sexually explicit text messages or images -- with friends or with people they do not know, she said.

It's important children learn to never send photos of themselves partially clothed, no matter who asks, Hotakainen said. It could be a boyfriend or girlfriend, she said, or it could be an adult who is pretending to be their age.

"I tell kids, if they really love you, they wouldn't make that request," she said. "Keep in mind, if somebody asks you for something, you have the right to say no."

Kids may think they are sending a photo to just one person, but the recipient can share it, and it's quickly out of control. It can lead to cyberbullying and even criminal charges if photos of underage people are shared.

Someone who receives an unsolicited sext should delete it immediately, she said. Possession of that photo could be considered child pornography if the subject is young enough.

"Just know, if it doesn't seem right, don't do it," she concluded.

Hotakainen suggested that parents ask their children to write down the usernames and passwords of their accounts and seal them in an envelope. If they go missing, the account information could be helpful to authorities.

Other advice -- cover the "eye" of any webcams when not in use, and parents who pay for their kids' phones have an absolute right to inspect the phones.

Maria Rivera attended the Family Day with her four sons. She said she found the information very important, "because now I realize the dangers kids run with social media, and there's a higher risk if we don't keep on top of it."

Her oldest, Cristian, already has a phone, she said, but "It's never too late to get this information."

Sylvia Alvarez de Davila offered tips about positive parenting. Alvarez de Davila is with the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Family Development.

She described the difference between punishment and discipline. Discipline, related to the Latin word for teaching, is the way parents can teach their children how to behave and how to control their behavior, she said.

Punishment focuses on the child's past actions and does not look toward the future, she said.

"Raising children is not easy," she said, and it's no easier with social media issues added in.

It's important that parents take time each day to "hug them and help them feel good about themselves and who they are," she said.

Punishment or a school suspension will not help children reflect on their behavior, she said.

Discipline can set clear rules and limits, so children learn how to treat others with respect. "Set clear limits and expectations," she said. "Be firm but flexible."

Some rules are non-negotiable, like those related to physical or emotional safety or to important family values. Examples she gave included not playing with matches and not going to parties where no adults are home.

Some rules are negotiable, she said. If a child is invited to have dinner with a friend's family and would be home later than expected, he or she should call to ask permission.

"Notice positive things your teenager does," she said. "We have beautiful children, but sometimes we focus on the negative because it's what we want to fix."

Useful websites:

From the Federal Trade Commission: FTC.gov/NetCetera

From the FBI: sos.fbi.gov

From NetSmartz Workshop: Netzsmartz.org/tipsheets

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(c)2017 West Central Tribune (Willmar, Minn.)

Visit West Central Tribune (Willmar, Minn.) at www.wctrib.com

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