Facebook and Instagram are household words, but an awful lot of parents don't know much about Omegle, Kik, Whisper or House Party, according to Scott Driscoll.
Leaving teenagers and younger children to explore the internet on their own puts them at a wide variety of risks, said Driscoll, a retired Glastonbury police officer who specialized in investigating online child exploitation.
“If you just give your children a phone, you're saying they have the maturity level to handle the world – because that's what they're going to see,” Driscoll said.
“We teach our kids how to walk, how to drive, and we set rules about that. But parents just give their kids devices and have no idea how they work, no idea who their kids will be communicating with,” Driscoll said.
As president of Internet Safety Concepts, Driscoll gives presentations about online safety at schools and at parents forums around the region. Before a talk to Bristol parents last week, he shared a few tips about how parents can keep their children safe in the very fast-changing digital world.
His first suggestion is to start early. His classroom presentations are geared to fifth-graders and up, but next year he's planning to address fourth-graders, too.
“There are kids in the fifth grade who have social media accounts with 500 followers,” he said. “Who are those people? They're strangers.”
While parents worry about “stranger danger” at parks or shopping centres, they often don't realise that some social media platforms encourage interactions – chats, picture swaps or even instant video conversations – with anyone.
“Omegle's site says 'Talk to strangers',” Driscoll said.
As youngsters progress through elementary school, parents need to begin developing a strategy for keep them safe on the internet, he said. They should decide ahead of time on the rules for using a smartphone, for instance, and should talk about risks long before the child gets one.
Phones can be configured to prevent anyone from installing an app without parental approval, and Driscoll recommends doing that. He also endorses disabling the camera function so that only the parents can unlock it with a password.
Parents should get familiar with apps that are popular with children and teens. Each one has different privacy settings and risks, and the playing field changes rapidly, he said. When a child or teen wants to add one, the parent should find out why and ask who will be added to the friends or followers lists.
Driscoll also recommended limiting the number of apps that can connect to the phone's GPS, which pinpoints where the user is located.
Bristol Police Chief Brian Gould, who helped arrange Driscoll's talk, emphasised that parents need to know who their children are communicating with online.
“Kids are looking to have as many followers as possible. There's a big difference between followers and friends – follower are strangers, they're not their friends,” Gould said.
Youngsters sharing photos or videos with a stranger through a relatively anonymous app might feel safe because they haven't disclosed their name, school, hometown or other identifying information. But after a chat they might add that stranger to their followers or friends list on a different platform – forgetting that more photos, family details and personal information are all available there, Driscoll said.
Bristol police Detective Alan Hornkohl, who investigates Internet crimes, said catching predators is difficult.
“Suspects who are knowledgeable in the use of the Internet can easily mask their identity, location, and use fictitious accounts to exploit individuals, including children,” he said. — The Hartford Courant/Tribune News Service