Parents who do not spend a lot of time online might be excused for overlooking the national epidemic of online sexual predators who troll Internet chat rooms for underage victims. Dateline’s series, “To Catch a Predator,” was an important wake-up call for many of those non-tech savvy adults, because it took this crisis off the Web and into living rooms around the country, making the threat of online pedophiles terrifyingly real.

This wake-up call comes just in time. It has been estimated that, at any given moment, 50,000 predators are on the Internet, luring youngsters into dangerous situations. Even more disturbing is the fact that, out of the hundreds of thousands of online sexual predators, approximately one percent get caught.

These predators make such elusive targets by portraying themselves as age-appropriate companions to unsuspecting children online. Teenagers are particularly at risk since more times than not they are online unsupervised and also more likely than younger children to have conversations regarding sexual activity. While children need a certain amount of privacy, they also require parental supervision and involvement in their daily lives.

Recent studies show:

  • 87 percent of kids ages 12-17 use the Internet and more than half of them go online daily.
  • 64 percent of children say they do things online they would not want their parents to know about.
  • 75 percent of children are willing to share personal information online about themselves and their family in exchange for goods and services.
  • One in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log on to the Internet say they have received an unwanted sexual solicitation via the Web.
  • Preschool children are actually one of the fastest growing groups of Web site visitors.

When surfing the Web, IMing friends, entering chat rooms with peers or even researching for school projects, parents must make sure their kids are protected from exposure to inappropriate Web sites, identity theft scams, sexual chat room predators, and countless other threats that anyone faces online.

Still, with online pedophiles the stakes are high, and it is important that parents respond appropriately to protect children from this unique threat.

If your children come to you about a disturbing person, message or Web site encountered while online, do not reprimand them. Create a plan to avoid similar occurrences in the future. Keep in mind that how you respond will determine whether they confide in you on other occasions, and how they learn to deal with problems on their own.

Other Tips for Keeping Kids Safe Online

  • Keep the family PC in a visible and widely used part of the home so you can see what your children are doing online. Become familiar with the Internet and all of the activities available online. If you don’t know how to log on, have your child show you. Ask your child what he does online, and consider sharing your child’s e-mail account to oversee his mail.
  • Utilize parental controls and establish access guidelines for your children, such as limiting the times they can go online and choosing which sites they may visit. Establish times that your children can and can’t access the Internet. Be sure to monitor their compliance with these rules, especially when it comes to the amount of time they spend on the computer. A child’s excessive use of the Internet, especially late at night, might be a clue that there’s a potential problem.
  • Instruct children never to provide any identifying information such as home address, age, photos, school name, e-mail address or telephone numbers to an unknown Web site or in a public message such as chat or bulletin boards or over e-mail. Do not share that information via e-mail unless you recognize and know the person.
  • Keep in mind that just because it’s online, doesn’t mean it’s true. If an offer seems “too good to be true,” it probably is. Be wary of any offers that involve a meeting, sending money or providing personal information. Also, since you can’t see or hear a person online, it’s simple for someone to misrepresent themselves. Someone claiming to be a 13-year-old girl could really be a 40-year-old man. The media has coined this trickery “Internet chat grooming,” when pedophiles and other undesirables pretend to be kids.
  • Teach your children safe Internet habits. Spend time with them while they are searching online and discuss possible dangers that are on the Internet. The Internet can provide needed family time and be used as a wonderful learning tool. Personal computers and the Internet should not be used as electronic babysitters.
  • If children make friends online, become just as familiar with them as you are with the friends they make at school or in the neighborhood.
  • Teach children not to open e-mails from addresses you do not recognize or subjects that do not make sense or are suggestive. Never respond to e-mail, chat comments, instant messages or other messages that are hostile, belligerent, inappropriate or in any way make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Keep an open line of communication between you and your children. Establish rules for online habits and talk to your children about what they are viewing online. Create a list of rules and post them next to the computer.

Now that you know what you’re up against, take a deep breath and be prepared with a first line of defense. New solutions allow you to filter or control what your children can do online. Use Internet parental controls to block chat areas, message boards and Web sites deemed inappropriate for your children. These work by allowing parents to filter out sites that contain nudity, sexually explicit material, hateful or violent content or ones that advocate the use of drugs. Also, be mindful of all files your child downloads and consider a spam filter to limit unsolicited e-mails. Some ISPs and e-mail services include these filters with their service but, if not, you can purchase one to limit questionable mail from getting through.

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