Better Business Bureau warns of internet threats and cyberbullying as students spend more time online this school year

Kids 12-17 years old spend 6-9 hours a day online.
Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 5:37 AM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - With most school districts incorporating virtual learning into their education plans, students are spending more time than ever on the internet. The Better Business Bureau is advising parents to pay close attention to their kids’ online activity.

“The internet is wide open and it has been wide open,” Julie Wheeler, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Serving Western Virginia, said. “A lot of people take for granted or just ignore the fact that there’s so much out there that they don’t want their kids seeing.”

Dangerous or inappropriate images are a big concern, with the BBB finding that 70 percent of kids encounter sexual or violent content while doing homework.

“One of the biggest things I would say, particularly with young children, is monitor,” Wheeler advised. “Make sure you are around, or periodically looking and checking to make sure they are where they need to be and are doing the work they’re supposed to do.”

Kids are never too young to learn good internet habits like creating strong passwords, privacy settings, not clicking on pop-up links and data protection.

“There’s a lot of research out there that says there are profiles being built on you that then target ads back to you or worse yet, use it for other means,” Wheeler said.

And while 95 percent of parents think they know what their kids are doing online, at least 17 percent of kids say their parents have no idea and 10 percent admit to visiting adult content sites when their parents aren’t around.

“Anything that is chatroom-related or gaming where they do those conversations, that’s where a lot of this stuff happens,” Wheeler said. “So you really want to know what games your kids are playing. Is it internet-based? Are they communicating? And hopefully limit the communication to people they already know.”

Another big online challenge is social media, especially for students who are connecting with their friends online because they can’t see them in person.

Common Sense Media has found that kids 12-17 years old spend 6-9 hours a day online. That’s why it’s important to make sure “kids understand there are real risks out there,” according to Wheeler.

A lot of danger doesn’t come from strangers, but from their peers in the form of cyberbullying. Teaching social media etiquette should be a regular lesson in children’s education.

The BBB found 65 percent of 8-14 year-olds have been involved in some kind of cyberbullying incident.

“If you cannot look somebody in the eye and say what you’re going to post to them, what you’re going to type, don’t type it and post it,” Wheeler said. “Because if you truly cannot look them in the eye and say it to them, you have absolutely no business posting it.”

The good news is that according to the BBB, about 85 percent of kids say they would tell an adult if they were being threatened or blackmailed online. Teens are a different story.

“Once you get to teenagers, they become incredibly protective and defensive and they certainly don’t want you looking at them, so it’s really important that we teach kids while they’re young how to protect themselves,” Wheeler said.

And if you think your child is too young for social media, be careful they’re not setting up accounts without your knowledge.

“You’re not supposed to have a Facebook page ’til you’re 13 and the latest research shows that 38 percent of the users are under 13,” Wheeler explained.

Kids need social interaction, but with time in the physical classroom being limited this year, many will turn to social media to connect with their friends.

“Anybody who has been bullied in school, it’s actually worse online,” Wheeler said.

Cyberbullying and spending too much time online has been linked to adolescent depression and even suicidal thoughts.

The Better Business Bureau has more information on internet safety, cyberbullying, kids’ use of social media and the internet, as well as protection tips and advice on its website.

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