Cyberbullying is one of the top threats facing American children today -- that's no exaggeration.
By comparison, schoolyard bullying seems incredibly tame. But when a child is bullied online, all of the damaging words, images and video of the bullying and the humiliation can be replayed over and over again -- and turn up in multiple places.
It's why so many people support and cheer Melania Trump, our first lady-to-be, in her stated commitment to combat cyberbullying for the sake of America's children.
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Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough Is Enough (EIE), a non-profit based in Virginia that is dedicated to making the internet safer for all kids, told LifeZette her group enthusiastically supports Melania Trump's desire to fight cyberbullying in whatever way she can.
"She is a wonderful role model and graceful voice to encourage a culture where all people are treated with dignity and respect," said Hughes. "She is a hands-on mom who understands how cruelly kids can treat each other online."
She added, "Parents need to realize their children are not immune to online dangers and that they need to become uber-vigilant to keep them safe. It's an ongoing cyber-parenting commitment that begins around age two" -- believe it or not! -- "and lasts through 18 years old."
Hughes shared with LifeZette her passionate concerns about this key issue and what American families need to know as they negotiate their children's passage through the online world.
Question: What must parents do, practically speaking, to keep their kids safe in the online world?
Answer: When children learn to walk, we keep harmful obstacles out of their way. We place covers over electrical outlets. Before they touch a hot stove, we run to our kids to keep them safe. As children become more savvy online -- and they're becoming so at an earlier age -- we must never lose the drive to protect our kids there, either.
It's critical for every parent to recognize that no children, of any age, are immune from internet dangers when they have unrestricted access. It's why our group created a curriculum, "The Internet Safety 101 Program" -- it's a DVD, workbook and website. It helps parents become educated, equipped and empowered to protect their children from pornography, sexual predators and cyber bullies. It also explains how to keep kids safe on social networking sites, gaming and mobile devices.
Q: Let's go through the harmful content specifically so that parents truly understand what is available online. For those who are unfamiliar -- it is shocking.
A: Yes, every child with unrestricted internet access can view X-rated porn or child porn literally in seconds -- and it's all free.
In terms of online predators out there, kids can engage in behavior on the web that can put them at further risk. Social networking platforms, online gaming and 24/7 internet access via mobile devices make it more challenging today for parents to protect kids from predators, pornographers and cyberbullies who seek to harm vulnerable children.
Preventing the online exploitation of children can seem like an overwhelming task, as kids are at risk of encountering inappropriate content and dangerous people across multiple internet platforms. The good news is you don't need a Ph.D. in internet technology to be a great cyber-parent. However, you do need to make a commitment to become familiar with the technology your children use and to stay current with internet safety issues.
Q: Let's go through some of what parents must do to accomplish this -- and this includes when kids are out of the physical home and at a friend's house, let's say, or in the neighborhood, away from their parents.
A: It's essential to implement safety rules and software tools on all internet-enabled devices used by children. Focus on the positives of internet use while teaching children about the dangers and how to make wise choices online.
Parents also need to keep in communication with their kids and know with whom they're communicating. They should be aware of kids' internet privacy settings, as well as the photos and videos they share online.
Q: With all of the outreach work you've done, tell us what parents must know about next steps -- and how they can get involved.
A: We reached out [during the 2016 campaign season] to the presidential nominees from both parties to support the Children's Internet Safety Pledge, which urged the next U.S. president to lead in preventing the internet-enabled sexual exploitation of our youth online.
We were very encouraged that as the law-and-order candidate, Donald J. Trump committed to protecting children from online predation and illegal pornography by signing the pledge before the GOP convention without hesitation. The pledge's goals include a commitment to appoint an attorney general who will make the vigorous prosecution of the federal obscenity, child pornography, sexual predation, child trafficking laws and the Children's Internet Protection Act a top priority.
We look forward to working with the Trump/Pence administration to make the internet safer for children. All parents should know about the pledge and sign it; it can be found on our website.
Q: Tell us about the National Porn-Free WiFi Campaign that you launched.
A: EIE launched this campaign two years ago. It urged two corporate giants, McDonald's and Starbucks, to lead corporate America to filter their WiFi from child porn and pornography. We are very enthusiastic that McDonald's is now filtering its WiFi in nearly all of its 14,000 corporate stores in America.
Two days after EIE announced the McDonald's success, Starbucks issued a public statement that they, too, would begin filtering their WiFi in the U.S. and implementing a safe, global WiFi policy.
We're continuing to encourage other restaurant chains, hotels, airlines and libraries to filter child porn and all porn from their WiFi. We need everyone's help to convince corporate America that is offering free public WiFi to exercise responsibility by filtering dangerous and illegal content. And parents should keep current on the latest technology and safety information for ensuring that kids have a safe and rewarding online experience.
Q: Let's be blunt: What's the dumbest thing our kids can do online?
A: There are so many! The top three in my opinion would be: Posting personal information, including photos, without thinking about the negative consequences or the dangerous people out there who seek to exploit kids; looking at pornography, since it can lead to addiction and has a harmful impact on the viewer; and interacting with and trusting strangers online.
Q: What are the smartest behaviors for kids online -- the things parents must insist their kids do?
A: Keep open lines of communication about all online activities and friends -- and don't hide anything. Parents are the first line of defense here.
Q: What are some telltale signs kids may have come into contact with an online predator?
A: When kids become secretive about their online activities -- that's a red flag. Other worrisome signs: when children become obsessive about going online, or when they become angry they can't get online. Parents must also watch for phone calls from people the family doesn't know; gifts or packages in the mail from people they don't know; and any kind of withdrawal by the child from parents, family and friends.
Q: You've developed a resource center for parents. Tell us about that.
A: Yes, EIE has a comprehensive resource center on our website to help parents if their children become prey to online dangers. Also, if your child has been contacted by a suspected predator or is being sexually exploited online, call the police and report it to the Cybertipline at 1-800-THE-LOST.
And if your child has seen pornography or is consuming it -- there are many resources to help, depending on the severity of the problem. Don't assume no damage has been done. Pornography images can never be erased from the brain's hard drive. Parents must be proactive. If there is addiction, seek professional help from a licensed therapist with experience in porn exposure and addiction.
And always, always, listen to your children -- to what they say and don't say. Never shame them. You always want to keep lines of communication open and build trust.