By Susan A. Merkner
For many parents, the scariest part of their own childhood came in the form of “stranger danger” – a vaguely frightening man in the park, a person pulling up in an automobile with nefarious intentions, the occasional obscene phone call.
But today, stranger danger is as close as the family computer and much more intimate. Kids and teens are quick to share personal information about themselves with new “friends” they have met online through social-networking Web sites, instant messaging and chat rooms. In turn, they can become unwitting recipients of pornography. Or worse, when their “friend” asks to set up a meeting, children can end up sexually molested or lured into prostitution.
Although parents and children are becoming more aware of the potential harm from online sexual predators, the problem continues to grow, experts say.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tracks the number of reported incidents of online child pornography, prostitution, molestation, enticement and other crimes through its CyberTipline. The Tipline, established nine years ago and mandated by the U.S. Congress to serve as the nation’s central reporting site on Internet child abuse crime, in mid-July received its 500,000th report of suspected crime.
Since its creation, the number of reports to the CyberTipline has shown significant increases in many of the reporting categories.
An estimated one in five girls and one in 10 boys will be sexually victimized in some way before they reach the age of 18, according to NCMEC President and Chief Executive Officer Ernie Allen. “The constant growth in reports to the CyberTipline is staggering. Even more disturbing is that these figures don’t reflect the true number of children being victimized because sex crimes involving minors are grossly underreported.”
For one San Antonio family, the threat of Internet sexual predators became a reality when their 12-year-old daughter’s girlfriend introduced her to a man through instant messaging. The seventh-grader met the man in person at a school basketball game and became alarmed when he made inappropriate sexual advances. Her mother, Kelli, who asked that her last name not be published, sought assistance from the San Antonio Police Department. The SAPD Online Unit set up a meeting with the man and arrested him. “They said he was a repeat offender and likely to be a child sex offender, but that it was hard to keep him offline,” Kelli says.
Local figures indicate that 50 adults have been indicted on charges of online child pornography, solicitation of a minor and sexual abuse of a child in the past six months, according to Shana Jones, Project Safe Childhood coordinator and special assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office-Western District, based in San Antonio.
Access to Inappropriate Sites
A national survey of parents released in June by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 65 percent of parents say they closely monitor their children’s media use, yet they continue to express significant concerns about children’s exposure to inappropriate media content.
“While parents are still concerned about a lot of what they see in the media, most are surprisingly confident that they’ve got a handle on what their own kids are seeing and doing – even when it comes to the Internet,” says Vicky Rideout, vice president and director of Kaiser’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health.
Experts are developing a consensus on the types of children most likely to get into trouble online. For instance, children with low self-esteem tend to seek reassurance and validation from outside their immediate circle of family and friends.
“Online predators are slowly stealing our youth away by grooming them and telling them how special they are,” says FBI special agent Rex Miller of the Innocent Images Unit in Antonio.
“Too much time online hampers one’s personal skills at relationships.”
Monitor Computer Use
Opening the lines of communication is an important step, experts agree. Among their recommendations:
• Do not allow children to have computers in their bedrooms. Locate computers in common areas of the house, such as the family room.
• Look over kids’ shoulders when they are online. If children are quick to close or minimize the browser window when a parent walks into the room, they may be trying to hide their actions.
• Ask children how they spend their time online and ask them to share favorite Web sites.
• Know the terms and abbreviations commonly used in instant messaging, text messaging and social-networking Web sites (see Resources).
• Set limits for how much time youngsters spend online. Experts recommend no more than one to two hours a day of total screen time, which includes time spent watching television and playing video games.
• Establish written rules for Internet use and enforce them. Advise caregivers and babysitters about the rules and expected enforcement.
• Parents also should strive to serve as positive role models by using media the way they want their children to and by being accessible to them in a non-threatening way if they encounter problems online.
Another reason for keeping a computer out of a child’s bedroom is the growing use of viruses that can turn on a web camera without engaging the red “record” light, thereby allowing the snoop to see what’s going on in the room without the computer owner knowing the camera is on, Miller says.
A wide range of tools are available to help parents monitor and direct their child’s Internet usage, such as parental controls provided by Internet service providers and a wide variety of filtering and monitoring software sold at retail stores and through Web sites.
San Antonio mom Kelli recommends a $30 downloadable program that monitors all Internet activity on the home computer. “Is it an invasion of a child’s privacy? Yes, but it’s important to do it,” she says.
Although the industry is moving toward increased self-regulation, parents should not rely on those efforts or on government regulation to keep their children safe online, experts say. They emphasize the need for continued open communications at home.
Internet Safety Programs
After a federal judge ruled recently that measures that would have forced Web sites to prevent young people from accessing sexually explicit materials violated the sites’ rights to free speech and privacy, other alternatives are being developed in Congress, according to i-SAFE, a non-profit foundation dedicated to safe online experiences for youth.
One bill under consideration would “create a public awareness campaign and relies less on filtering and more on education and awareness. It recognizes that education is the best way to equip young people and consumers with the skills they need to be safe online,” i-SAFE says. “The best way to ensure safe and responsible decisions online is to become educated on how to avoid and detect risky behaviors.”
Common Sense Media – www.commonsensemedia.org – Online resources include Internet survival tips for kids, teens, parents and teachers, including a 23-page downloadable pamphlet, “Keeping Your Kids Internet Safe and Smart.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation – www.fbi.gov/publications/pguide/pguide.htm -- Downloadable pamphlet, “A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety,” addresses risk factors and offers suggestions for parents who suspect their child is communicating with a sexual predator online.
Get Net Wise – www.getnetwise.org – Tips and tutorials aimed at keeping online experiences positive, safe and secure, sponsored by the Internet Education Foundation, a coalition of businesses, public interest organizations, nonprofits and trade associations.
iSAFE – www.isafe.org – Newsletters, articles and educational curricula offer guidance to families, community leaders and law enforcement officials on avoiding dangerous, inappropriate or unlawful online behavior.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children – www.cybertipline.com, 800-843-5678 – Offers the CyberTipline, a means of reporting incidents of child sexual exploitation, including child pornography, child prostitution, online enticement of children for sexual acts, sending obscene material to a child and other incidents.
Project Online Safety – www.ProjectOnlineSafety.com – Educational materials and safety tools provided by participating media and technology companies and trade groups.
Safekids.com – www.safekids.com – Includes a list of kids’ rules for online safety that families can use in setting limits for children’s online activities.
Wired Safety – www.wiredsafety.org – Billing itself the world’s largest online safety and help group, it offers information geared to parents, children, educators and law enforcement personnel about online safety, privacy and security.
Susan A. Merkner is a former Dominion Parenting Media editor and mother of two.
First published September 2007 in Our Kids San Antonio