Back-to-school shopping includes Internet safety, education tips

The back-to-school shopping list these days often includes laptops and cell phones. The instant access and convenience afforded by such electronic devices make them ideal for studying, socializing, and coordinating schedules.

As parents buy these items for their students, it's important for them to review safety guidelines and institute precautions so that everyone can enjoy all the benefits of Internet connectivity and make the most of a great school year.

While the Internet has opened the door for a new way of communicating, that communication isn't always positive. Predators lurk on Craigslist, bullies go viral on Facebook, and cellphones are used to distribute photos that would make Hugh Hefner blush. A recent study reports that 25% of kids experience cyberbullying and 20% of teens experience sexting, which is the sending of sexually explicit photos via cell phones.

Experts who study these issues say modern incarnation of bullying and sexting can be more damaging to victims than traditional tactics like fist fights and classroom taunts.

Parents also need to be aware of what their children are doing in cyberspace. While 93 percent of parents said they knew what their children were doing online, 52 percent of children said they do not tell their parents what they do online, according to Bridget Roberts-Pittman, Indiana State University assistant professor of counseling.

"Parents have a right to check their child's phone and Internet use," she said, and suggested using software packages such as Spectorsoft or I Am Big Brother. "Parents need to talk to their children about cyberbullying and sexting. Children today are so saturated with technology that they might not even recognize the behavior as a serious problem."

The start of a new school year is a great time to have these conversations. Linda Criddle of the Safe Internet Alliance offers great pointers on using this time to review, reevaluate and reinforce your guidelines for an Internet safety check-up.

If you need help coming up with age-appropriate Internet rules for your children, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's NetSmartz is a good resource. It's a free online toolkit with safety tips geared toward a variety of age groups.

We owe it to our kids to teach them online safety, and it's just as important for parents to learn the risks of the Internet in order to help their families have a safe and secure online experience.