Q: I saw the “Dateline NBC” news story on Internet predators and I am sufficiently concerned about the Internet in my house. What can I do to protect my children? — Janice
A: For any parent who did not see the “Dateline NBC” program “To Catch A Predator III,” I would highly recommend a visit to the MSNBC Web site (http:// msnbc.msn.com) to watch the posted videos on the most recent roundup of Internet predators.
During a three-day period, 51 individuals showed up at a home in Riverside, Calif. expecting to have a sexual encounter with a 12- or 13-year-old child who was supposedly home alone. The transcripts for every encounter showed that the predators clearly knew that they were communicating with a young child, or so they thought.
I am often approached by parents who believe they don’t stand a chance of controlling a technology their children grasp much better than they do. They are looking for a quick software download to become the babysitter, but software filters are only part of the solution and they can be compromised.
The bottom line for any parent in the Internet age is that you must take the time to educate yourself about this technology or not allow it in your home. In the real world you would not allow a 40-yearold stranger to walk right into your house and right into your child’s room, but millions of parents are allowing this to happen in the virtual world every day.
The single biggest mistake made by parents is placing an Internet-connected computer in a child’s room where they can lock the door and wander off into any part of the Internet without any limits or supervision. A common mistake that many kids make (especially younger ones) is that they post too much personally identifiable information on their online profiles or, worse, post alluring pictures of themselves. Predators use any information they can to manipulate children into thinking that they can be trusted.
Instant messaging and social networking Web sites like MySpace.com are targetrich environments for sexual predators. By posing as another teen or a slightly older person, they attempt to develop a relationship with the expressed purpose of manipulating them into a sexual encounter. This does not mean that all instant messaging and online “buddies” are predators, but a recent Pew study suggests that 89 percent of solicitations occur in chat rooms and instant messages.
Educating yourself and getting involved with your child’s online activities is the best advice that I can give, and starting them off early with keen awareness of the dangers is key. We have posted a free Safe Surfing Guide for parents (www.datadoctors.com/parents) that covers issues like warning signs that your child may be having a problem with the Internet, common mistakes parents make, a family contract for Internet use and an Internet glossary with common chat lingo.