In 2002 thirteen-year-old Christina Long, a Connecticut suburbanite, became the first confirmed murder in the U.S. by an Internet predator. Unfortunately she has not been the last. Fortunately, recent media attention is finally making parents aware of dangers linked to Internet use.
A study performed by National Institute for Missing and Exploited Children concluded that in the past year one in five minors were subjected to sexual solicitation through chat rooms and instant messengers. 5% received aggressive sexual solicitation in the form of phone calls, mail, money, or gifts, as well as being asked to meet. Almost 70% of all solicitations occurred in the home, yet less then one-quarter of minors told a parent. Shockingly, by an average age of just eleven years most minors have been exposed to Internet pornography.
Internet predation is an issue that cannot be ignored. The Long family did not realize their children were in peril until it was too late. We must learn from their loss and take action before more children suffer a similar fate. Amazingly, many responsible parents who wouldnt dream of letting their children cross the street without teaching them to look both ways, or under the supervision of a crossing guard, will let their kids play on the Information Super-Highway without any safeguards!
There are several excellent resources designed to provide education to both parents and children. One of the best is the National Institute for Missing and Exploited Children. Here you will learn how to identify dangers and how to effectively address them. As an example, one of the easiest changes that can be made is moving the family PC to a highly visible area, making it easier to watch for risky behavior. There are other valuable tips, such as how to pick chat room and instant messenger user names that draw less attention from predators and what type of chat rooms to avoid.
The most important thing you must teach your children is that the Internet is not always a safe playground where they can let their guard down. Children often have a false sense of security on the Internet because they believe its anonymous nature will protect them, even from behavior that would make them run in real life. Children must be taught that behavior that would make them uncomfortable in person must not be tolerated online either. Most minors would be afraid of a stranger who starting talking to them with sexual innuendo or talking about their sexual fantasies, but fail to be afraid when they are approached online. In fact many children will even engage in conversations when approached, perhaps because the Internet gives the illusion of personal safety.
Children must be taught that giving out personal information is extremely dangerous. Teach your children that even the smallest piece of information, such as what softball team they are on, is enough for a predator to find them. Also teach them that a stranger online is not always who they say they are. Predators will often masquerade as children themselves to obtain information they can use to identify and find victims. Your child may think they are talking to someone their own age, when in fact they may be talking to someone intent on doing them harm.
In addition to education you must put in place parental controls and monitoring tools to add a second layer of defense. Even the best child will break the rules on occasion, and even the smartest child will fail to identify every dangerous situation. Quality parental control software should allow filtering of web sites and permit monitoring of which sites your children are visiting, allowing you to identify risky behavior before it is too late. Instant messenger controls that permit conversation monitoring, as well as permitting limits on which contacts your kids can have conversations with, are invaluable since predators often use these messengers to meet and entice their victims. Another option that is vital, although often overlooked, is a means of block peer-to-peer file sharing programs. These programs are typically used to download music, but can also serve as a portal for pornography, including the most insidious forms of child pornography. Finally, a quality monitoring tool to that allows you to watch everything your kids do will help identify and address risky behavior. The most typical tool for this is a keystroke logger, which logs every keystroke your child makes. Perhaps the greatest value of installing good parental controls and monitor tools is the positive effect it will have on your childrens behavior. They are less likely to break the rules if they know you are watching.
Educate yourself, educate your children, and invest in the tools to make sure they re safe. Don’t let your family be the next saying they never thought it could happen to them.