Internet Safety: A Primer for Parents

By Marie Wolf

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yle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">This concludes our Two-Part Series on Child Safety. Part 1, Outsmarting Child Molesters:  how to keep kids safe in neighborhoods and communities, examined the dangers of the Internet and how parents and children can work toward a safer cyber experience.

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yle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Communication – worldwide, 24 hours a day, at our fingertips – made possible by an infinite number of interconnected computer networks. The Internet has categorically changed the way we live. Introduced more than 30 years ago as a way for the government to store data, and scientists to share findings with one another, it steadily evolved into a commercial entity, bringing personal computers and convenience into the homes of millions.

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yle="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Now, we can find what we need with the stroke of a key – from bargain deals on family vacations to breaking news on world issues. We can grocery shop in cyberspace and pay our bills electronically. Children love to log on, too. They can find homework help in a flash or amuse themselves by visiting Web sites where they can create virtual pets or print out coloring pages.

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Sooner or later, though, the entertainment value wanes, and as kids become more social, they begin to rely on the computer to socialize with classmates after school or explore mature subject matter in chat rooms. At this stage, it’s all about instant messaging, ever-growing buddy lists and profiles – where sharing too much personal information may lead to danger. Experts say this is the point at which parents must step in and get savvy about cyberspace.


The Facts

In an Internet safety survey prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000, in which more than 1,000 children, ages 10 to 17, were interviewed, researchers learned:


• Almost one in five kids were approached sexually over the Internet in the last year. The majority of the victims were ages 14 to 17, but nearly one quarter of those solicited were kids 10 to 13 years old.


• Ninety-seven percent of those sexual solicitations came from strangers who approached kids in chat rooms or through instant messages.


Even more telling are facts gathered in a 2003-2004 survey conducted by i-SAFE America (a government-funded group that works with schools to educate and keep kids safe online). Of the 19,000 students surveyed in grades five to eight:


• Fifty-five percent have willingly shared personal information (name, age, sex) over the Internet.


• Ten percent have had face-to-face contact with someone they met online.


Clearly, parents need to educate their kids early on. “You need to catch kids around second or third grade. Once they are in seventh, eighth and ninth – they don’t want to listen,” says Steve Treglia of the Nassau County District Attorney’s office. As the Crime Unit’s Chief of Technology, Treglia investigates Internet crimes ranging from underage credit card use to pedophile activity. Through the DA’s online pedophile sting operation, 21 arrests have been made since 2001. Of those, a local eye doctor and a city corrections officer were both found to have been sexually preying on kids via the Internet.


“Parents need to get knowledgeable as soon as their children start to use the computer,” urges Treglia.


With that in mind, here’s what you need to know.


Screen Name

This is your child’s online identity. Depending on the parental controls you set, it gives him access to e-mail, instant messenger, chat rooms and more. Guide your child in choosing a name that is fun, safe and not provocative. A 13-year-old girl from Suffolk County says she lost her online privileges when her mother discovered that her screen name was “ILuvBoyz.”


e="FONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-STYLE: normal; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Profile

This is a feature offered by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) such as America Online. Here, a user can fill out an online form that builds a short biography about himself, which includes his name, sex, location and hobbies.


“Children really shouldn’t establish profiles because that’s where pedophiles fish for information,” says Treglia. “They search randomly for words in a profile like ‘cheerleader’ or ‘school’ and then profiles pop up with screen names. Strangers put these names on their buddy lists and then impersonate students or teens.”


“They [pedophiles] are shrewd, they are smart and they should not be underestimated,” warns Jeff Mackston, chief of operations for the Oceanside-based, Child Abuse Unit – SPCC, a nonprofit law enforcement agency that works to protect minors from being exploited. “They know how to work these kids. After a couple of weeks or months, they’re not strangers anymore,” cautions Mackston.


Chat Rooms

Here, members can share their views on such subjects as travel, entertainment, romance and more. Entering is like walking into a room full of strangers. People may not always be who they say they are.


“Chat rooms offer a dysfunctional child a new kind of power,” says Paul Hamilton, the lead investigator for the Child Abuse Unit – SPCC. “People can’t be judged here. They are all equal.” Unfortunately, a pedophile can oftentimes sense those who don’t quite fit in. Hamilton explains, “They look for children who are looking for something – those who have something missing. If a child is in a chat room, but he is not communicating with anyone, a pedophile will sense that loneliness.”


Hamilton has spent years investigating Internet crimes, at one point managing 125 cases of sexual exploitation simultaneously. His very first online suspect turned out to be the Vice President of a major HMO in New York. “Here was this big, wealthy guy with a family who was setting up a rendezvous with a 13-year-old girl – who happened to be me!”


Hamilton wants parents to know that a pedophile will “morph” his personality to fill a child’s void. If a child complains online that his parents keep a tight rein on him or won’t buy him the right clothes, a pedophile will lure him by saying something like, “If I were your daddy, I’d take you anywhere you wanted to go. I’d buy you nice clothes.”


He adds, “Whatever the kid is lacking – if they don’t have the closeness they crave with a parent – a pedophile will be more than willing to step in.”


Instant Messenger (IM)

Kids love this feature because rather than sending a message via e-mail, they can chat in real time. A user will be notified when their “buddy” is online and then they can carry on a one-on-one conversation. As more “buddies” log on, the conversations grow.


Instant messaging can be safe if your child is taught to communicate only with screen names from his buddy list.


ONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-STYLE: normal; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a new awareness campaign entitled, HDOP (Help Delete Online Predators). The Center cautions parents to set strict guidelines with their children regarding instant messaging, telling them they should only IM school and family friends that they know by face and who are known to their parents. Take a look at your child’s IM buddy list, the Center advises. Make sure you can put a face to every screen name on the list.

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Empowering Kids to Make Safe Choices

ONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-STYLE: normal; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">The Internet is here to stay, and kids will find a way to log on whether we as parents like it or not. Rather than forbid its use, experts say parents need to stay vigilant while guiding their children to make good choices.

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ONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-STYLE: normal; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“You can pull the plug on your child, but there are Internet cafes and friends’ houses. We have to work together on this issue,” says Alane Fagin, executive director of Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS). The organization has begun offering “SurfSafe!” Internet education to Long Island schools.

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ONT-SIZE: 10pt; FONT-STYLE: normal; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">Carolyn Walpole, director of curriculum for i-SAFE America, explains that in designing Internet safety education for children at the elementary level, “our aim is to get kids to understand the abstract about the Internet, that the Internet community is like the physical community they live in.” Students are taught to follow the same safety rules about not talking to strangers or sharing personal information. “We try to alert them to age-appropriate problems without trying to scare them.”

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The Best Defense

Experts say the computer should not be used as a babysitter. Yet, parents agree, it’s difficult to watch over your child minute-to-minute. Therefore, communication within the family is vital. Talk with your child and come up with some sensible rules they must follow while online. Here are some examples to consider from the Web site


• I will not give out personal information such as my address, telephone number, parents’ work address/telephone number, or the name and location of my school without my parents’ permission.


• I will never send a person my picture or anything else without first checking with my parents.


• I will never agree to get together with someone I “meet” online without first checking with my parents.


• I will not respond to any messages that are mean or in any way make me feel uncomfortable. It is not my fault if I get a message like that. If I do, I will tell my parents right away so that they can contact the service provider.

“The best defense is to have a comfortable, open line of communication with your kids,” says Hamilton. “There is no substitution for a good relationship.”

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Cyber Talk

LOL, KOTC – what does it all mean? Ever notice how quickly your child types when he’s talking online? That’s probably because proper spelling, punctuation and grammar have gone out the window when it comes to cyber chat. What are they saying? Test your knowledge of this glossary of terms provided by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (BTW (by the way), LOL means laughing out loud; KOTC stands for kiss on the cheek.)


ASL: --- --- --------

F2F: ---- -- ----

IPN: --- ------- -----

LMIRL: ----- ---- -- ---- ----

P911: -- ------- --- ------

PAW: ------- --- --------


ASL: age sex location; F2F: face to face; IPN: I’m posting naked; LMIRL: Let’s meet in real life; P911: My parents are coming; PAW: Parents are watching



Law Enforcement Agencies

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – Charles B. Wang International Children’s Building, 699 Prince St., Alexandria, Va.; Hotline: 800-THE-LOST (800-843-5678), – Provides information about crimes committed against children, offers Internet education to parents and children and maintains a Cyber Tipline for the public to report Internet-related child exploitation.

MILY: Verdana">Office of the Nassau County District Attorney – 262 Old Country Rd., Mineola; 516-571-3800, – Visit the Web site to read a comprehensive document entitled, Keeping Your Child Safe on the Internet.



MILY: Verdana">Child Abuse Prevention Services (CAPS) – P.O. Box 176, Roslyn, 516-621-0552, – A nonprofit organization that offers information, support and educational workshops to prevent child abuse. Call for more information about the SurfSafe! Internet Safety program.

le="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Child Abuse Unit-SPCC – Oceanside, 516-897-SPCC (7722), – A nonprofit organization empowered by New York State’s Division of Criminal Justice Service. Provides Internet education to schools upon request, investigates online sexual exploitation of children and more. Learn more about their printer cartridge-recycling program by contacting Valentina Janek, Director of Advocacy.

le="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">iSafe America Carlsbad, Ca., 760-603-7911, – Designated by Congress as a nonprofit, prevention-oriented Internet safety foundation. Free curriculum, K-12, available to educators in all 50 states.

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On the Web

le="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Here’s just a few of the many sites offering safety tips for parents and kids.

le="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> – Find Internet safety tips by age, learn about online risks and research their technology glossary.

le="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt"> – A family guide to a safe Internet experience. – A “cyber-neighborhood watch” providing online safety education and programs for educators, parents and victims.

www.fbi.govThe Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s site offers a kid-friendly page with Internet safety tips as well as a Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety.