As area kids go back to school, they begin spending more time on homework, reports and projects. These and other daily activities require internet usage, which can leave parents asking how to keep their kids safe online.
Communication is the key to keeping children safe on the internet, said James Smith, who investigates internet crimes against children for the Cassville Police Department and the Southwest Cyber Crime Task Force.
"The main thing is to communicate with your kids," said Smith. "The biggest deterrent against cyber criminals is for parents to know what their children are doing online and who they are talking with.
"In the past, the TV was the babysitter for many families," said Smith. "Now, the computer is the babysitter, but unlike the TV, the computer can come and get you."
Computers should always be located in a centralized area within the home, said Smith. Screens should be placed where parents can see them when walking by.
"Definitely locate your computer in an open area where you can see what your kids are doing at all times," said Smith. "Today, so many kids have computers in their rooms, and parents don't know what they are doing.
"Also, kids don't only have access to the internet through the computer," said Smith. "The cell phone is basically a computer itself. You can access anything on the cell phone that you can on the computer. Parents should be aware of this."
Smith recommends parents include a discussion on internet usage at the dinner table each evening. In addition to asking kids how their days went or if they have any homework to complete, parents should ask what their children did online that day.
"Know where they are going online," said Smith. "Parents should also know who their kids' friends are on the internet, and it is a good idea to get on the computer and look at what their children are doing."
Parents should ask kids where they are going digitally, who they are interacting with digitally and what time they are logging off of the internet.
"It is your responsibility to protect your children," said Smith.
Missouri KidsFirst recommends parents spend time with their children online. Parents should encourage kids to show them what they do on the internet, cell phone or while gaming. Parents can also protect their kids by setting clear rules and boundaries for internet usage.
Parents should teach kids to never post their phone number online or give their number to anyone they meet on the internet, said Smith. Children and parents should also refrain from posting photos that show them in any clothing or uniforms that indicate which school they attend.
"School T-shirts, cheerleading outfits and uniforms can give away where a child actually lives," said Smith.
Parents should also work to ensure their children feel comfortable talking about cyberbullying, which is when an individual threatens or harasses another individual on the internet. Cyberbullying can also include the receipt of unwanted photos or files or when an individual asks a child to keep secrets from the adults in their lives.
"Kids should tell their parents anytime they are the victim of cyberbullying," said Smith. "If they don't want to tell their parents, they should tell a trusted friend or a teacher. The only way to make it stop is to tell someone."
Smith encourages kids to be especially cautious on teen social networking sites, where cyberbullying can occur. These sites are also often used by cyber criminals.
"Remember that the person on the other end isn't always who they say they are," said Smith. "Children and adults have to be very careful what websites they visit and opening email attachments, even from individuals they know. These can contain viruses that are designed to steal personal information."
Although Smith does not completely discourage kids from meeting children in person who they become acquainted with online, he said kids should never meet an online friend alone.
"If a child is going to meet someone in person, they must have their parents with them," said Smith. "The child's parents must know about the meeting and accompany the child."