The internet has become an excellent place to learn, communicate, and keep up with current events. Unfortunately, it has also become a tool for those who would harm others. “The great thing about the internet is you can find anything there; the bad thing about it is you can find anything there”. The internet has empowered people to express their ideas and thoughts to a wide audience. Sometimes this freedom of expression leads to content that is inappropriate for our children. The internet has no built in protection that is effective in keeping our kids from viewing this material. There are software programs which filter websites to block objectionable material but even these programs are not 100% effective.
There are many ways your child can be victimized on the internet. Two of the more common dangers are child predators and cyber bullying.
Kids are somewhat more vulnerable to predators on the internet due to their lack of experience and a tendency to trust people. Criminals are aware of this and take advantage of it to commit crimes. One of the most disturbing crimes committed using the internet is the sexual exploitation of children. Child predators will use a variety of methods to lure children into their trap. They find out what your child’s interests are and then use that information to gain their confidence. Predators often pose as other kids to gain information and develop a rapport with their victim. Sometimes they will send money or gifts to the victim. One method used by pedophiles is called “grooming”. This is where the criminal uses flattery, sympathy and even offers of “modeling jobs” to gain a child’s confidence. They then manipulate the victim into meeting with them in person. This method tends to happen over an extended period of time and can result in gradual changes in your child’s behavior.
Despite an increase in arrests of online predators (you may remember the NBC Dateline television series “To Catch a Predator” which highlighted efforts by police to apprehend online predators) the facts do not suggest that the internet is facilitating an increase in sex crimes against kids. One study showed that in 2006 only 1% of those arrested for sex crimes against children were online predators. The increase in arrests of online predators is more reflective of the increasing number of kids using the internet and it highlights increased efforts on the part of law enforcement to apprehend online predators.
In a report to congress in 2007, law enforcement sources estimated there were 3.5 million images of child pornography on the internet. The number of websites hosting such images is very difficult to determine. In the beginning of 2006, there were 340,000 reports of child pornography to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Despite our best efforts, the numbers are impossible to determine with any certainty. Most crimes go unreported because the victims are embarrassed by the experience or are afraid of the punishment they might receive from their parents.
Cyber bullying is defined by Wikipedia as “the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group that is intended to harm others”. This phenomenon was recently brought to the forefront of public awareness by a young girl who was allegedly driven to the point of suicide by a woman who was accused of relentlessly bullying the girl using the internet. According to www.Isafe.org, a website dedicated to e-safety education, in a study of kids conducted nationwide during the 2003-04 school year:
42% of kids reported they had been bullied online, 1 in 4 more than once.
35% of kids reported they were threatened online, 1 in 5 more than once.
58% of kids reported someone said mean or hurtful things to them online, 4 of 10 more than once.
53% said they have said something mean or hurtful to another person online, 1 in 3 did it more than once.
58% said they did not tell their parents about their experiences.
Parents are our society’s best resource in protecting our kids from the dangers of cyberspace. Probably the most important thing you can start with is to educate yourself about the internet and other contemporary forms of communication. Technology has provided us with many ways to communicate from our computers, PDA’s, and cell phones. The more you know about these technologies the better you can protect your child. The best resource is the internet itself. Any search service will provide a wealth of information about the many forms of communication available today. Next you should have a long talk with your kids about using the internet and other forms of communication. Kids tend to believe they can “handle” whatever may come along, but the simple lack of experience in life can prevent them from recognizing a problem in the making.
Set clear limits in regards to where they are allowed to go on the internet and who they may have contact with and stick to them rigidly. Review their online contacts and know who they communicate with. If you choose to allow your child to have an online identity on a social networking site, make sure the information they post about themselves is very basic, such as only the general area they live in as opposed to the actual city. Make sure their privacy settings are set to block unauthorized people from viewing details of their profile. Do not allow your kids to post pictures of themselves online.
As the parent of your children, you are responsible for them in every way. Your kids may feel that they are entitled to a certain amount of privacy but, legally, they are not. As their parent you have the right, and some would argue the responsibility, to know everything about what your kids do online. Designate a place in the house for the computer that is in plain view such as in the living room. Place the monitor so that it can be seen by you when your kids are using it. Do not allow your kids to have a computer in their bedroom where you cannot effectively monitor them. Do not allow your kids to have e-mail accounts that you cannot access. Check your kids’ e-mails now and then to see who they are talking to. Teach your kids to never open e-mail from someone they don’t know. Use filters to weed out spam from their incoming e-mail. Do not allow your kids to have any accounts which you can’t access.
There are a number of software programs available to help you keep track of your kids’ activities on the computer. Some popular ones are: Net Nanny, Spysure Parental Control, Cyber Patrol, and Safe Eyes, just to name a few. Perhaps the best way to monitor their activities is to participate with them. If you don’t get involved with your kids, someone else just might. There are many abbreviations kids use to communicate faster online. It is very helpful to familiarize yourself with these. You can get a guide to commonly used lingo at: http://www.netsmartz411.org/
Most of us feel like we can’t get by without our cell phone. Many people provide cell phones to their kids. While a cell phone is a huge convenience, it is not a necessity. With a few exceptions it is not necessary for our kids to have a cell phone. Many cell phones have internet access as well as some form of instant messaging. It is quite difficult to monitor your child’s use of a cell phone. If you feel your child should have a cell phone available for emergencies, get one that can be programmed to call only a few selected numbers you program into it. Get a phone that does not have internet or texting capability. As your child gets older you may want to allow some of these features but younger children don’t need them.
If you feel your child has been contacted by someone with bad intentions, take action immediately. Close the account where the contact occurred and be very watchful of any other accounts. If you feel a crime has been committed call the police right away. You can reach the Temecula Police Department at (951) 696-HELP (4357).
Community Service Officer John Thomas is a long time resident of Temecula and is a Crime Prevention Officer with the Temecula Police Department Crime Prevention Unit. He can be reached at (951) 506-5132.