Bad things that can happen to kids online have been the stuff of tabloid stories for some years now. Frederick Lane's new book, Cybertraps for the Young, is more intelligent and more subtle than that. Instead of asking what can happen to kids, he asks what kinds of trouble they can get into, in the interests of devising parental strategies to avoid the worst of them.
A lawyer, computer forensics expert and the author of a previous book on privacy, Lane was drawn into this subject when he was called in to consult on the case of a 22-year-old man who was convicted for possession of child pornography after misconfiguring LimeWire to download material indiscriminately. The man's father was distraught, and over their discussions Lane — a father himself — could easily empathise. What if it were one of his kids?
Lane is far from alone: the technology-savviest parents are sometimes the most reluctant to let their kids loose with technology because they know what can happen. At the same time, those same tech-savvy parents know the cost their kids will pay if they are barred from the social and cultural lives of their peers. Refusing to allow teens to use mobile phones or social media is qualitatively different from banning them from watching television. In the latter case, they lose topics under discussion; in the former case, they are excluded from it entirely.
This is one book where the American experience is largely universal even though the laws are not. English kids love technology, too, and they are just as likely to get in trouble by sharing indiscreet photos, copyrighted works or the answers to the physics test. English kids are just as likely to be the targets or perpetrators of cyberbullying and harassment, hacking, identity theft, fraud and invasion of privacy.
For each topic, Lane looks at the law, the scope of the problem, how the internet and mobile devices contribute, how parents can investigate and prevent problems, and what the consequences might be for the child if not stopped. All of it is written in a sober and non-sensational manner — the reality of the worst that can happen is often quite scary enough. In one story, worried about his newly divorced mother's financial problems, a teen tried to help by playing poker online to win extra funds. Instead, he lost $7,000 of her savings.
Lane's strategies for dealing with his own kids won't appeal to everyone or work in all cases. He makes disclosing the passwords a requirement for device ownership. He requires full friend status on their social media pages. And he favours a fair amount of monitoring and surveillance to keep tabs on who they talk to and what they do online. But much more of what he recommends is in line with the generally sane recommendations of the Byron Review. Talk to your children (or students). Keep educating yourself about new technology. Before buying a device for your child, learn what it does and what it can communicate with. Consider keeping computers in common areas of the house and setting up a family charging station so mobile devices aren't taken to bed at night. Supervision is not stalking, writes Lane, and privacy is a privilege.
Cybertraps for the Young By Frederick S. Lane NTI Upstream 324pp ISBN: 978-0-9840531-7-9 Price $24.99