The emergence of social media has been a nightmare for parents who have the task of protecting their children from sexual predators who can disguise themselves while typing away on a laptop from across town or the world.
That job got harder this week in North Carolina when the state Court of Appeals ruled as unconstitutional a 2008 law that was designed to keep convicted sex offenders from using social media to engage unsuspecting children. The court ruled that the law violated free speech.
The “Protect Children From Sexual Predators Act” made it unlawful for a registered sex offender to access a website where minors are permitted to become members or have personal Web pages, such as Facebook and MySpace. That measure was part of a host of restrictions to protect minors from sexual predators.
“It arbitrarily burdens all registered sex offenders by preventing a wide range of communication and expressive activity unrelated to achieving its purported goal,” Court of Appeals Judge Rick Elmore wrote. The law “violates the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, and it is unconstitutional on its face and as applied.”
The feel-good legislation was an attempt by legislators to make parents feel more secure when their children ventured onto the Internet, where conversations can easily be had with strangers who aren’t who they say they are. But the legislation was rushed — and drafting a replacement that will achieve its goal and meet legal muster should be a priority when legislators return to Raleigh.
In the meantime, here are some tips from SafetyWeb on how parents can protect their children from Internet predators.
— Discuss with your child why he or she wants to use a social network.
— Teach your child what kind of personal information should be kept private.
— Check your child’s privacy settings to restrict access and postings.
— Promote honesty. Set a good example by not lying and discuss how lying can hurt relationships.
— Be sure they understand what expectations you have for their online behavior and what consequences they will face should they stray.
— Start your own account on the same websites and let your child know you’re there.
— Take advantage of parental control features by restricting inappropriate content.
— Review your child’s friends list and ask questions if you see a friend unfamiliar to you.
— Ask your child to refrain from posting photographs. If you do allow photos, be sure they don’t include any identifiable clues like the exterior of your homes, as this may be a target for criminals.
— Do Facebook “reviews” with them. Log on together and review your child’s recent activity to demonstrate you are still their parent.
— Teach your child to trust their “uh-oh” feeling. Encourage them to tell you or another reliable adult if they feel threatened or awkward because of something somebody said or did online. If you feel that your child is in danger, report the incident to the police as well as the social networking Web site.