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Expert Warns Parents About Internet Dangers

Childhelp USA director calls it 'A pedophile's new best friend.'

The Internet is a marvelous tool for a variety of worthwhile purposes. But in the hands of a pedophile, it can also be a way of seducing an innocent, unsuspecting child.

"I was lecturing to elementary-school students on child abuse and good touch/bad touch, and I started incorporating the Internet [into my talks]," said Iris Beckwith, director of prevention programs with Childhelp USA's Fairfax office. "I began to research how it affects our kids, and I now call the Internet a pedophile's new best friend."

A NONPROFIT organization, Childhelp USA is dedicated to the treatment and prevention of child abuse and neglect. And Beckwith was addressing a group of parents attending a workshop about teen-agers, March 27, at Westfield High. It was sponsored by the Westfield Community Coalition, Stone Middle School PTA and Westfield High PTSA.

Beckwith's subject was "Internet Safety" and, during her one-hour talk, the mothers and fathers in the audience were both spellbound and astonished. Among other things, Childhelp advises elementary-school children on Internet safety rules. By the end of the year, said Beckwith, "We'll have probably reached 19,000 kids in the Washington Metropolitan area."

At Westfield, she spoke about the pitfalls teen-agers often fall prey to when using the Internet for research, downloading entertainment, e-mailing or chatting. Even the most seemingly innocuous thing, such as playing a game online, can help a predator gain a child's trust and, in many cases, lead to that child's harm.

But there are things parents can do to try to prevent it. Said Beckwith: "Communication and parenting will help make your kids a lot safer."

She began her session by discussing the dangers of using the Internet as a way of researching projects. "All your kids use the Internet for research for school," she said. "But anybody can put anything online, and nobody checks it. So kids don't always find multiple sources or credit them properly. They're cutting and pasting information and not going to books."

AS A RESULT, said Beckwith, the finished product looks good, but students often "don't understand anything about what they've researched. And if kids don't credit their sources or put into quotes things they've copied, then they're plagiarizing and they could be kicked out of school."

As for downloading music, movies and games from the Internet, there's no problem if teens are paying for it. But, warned Beckwith, they don't understand the consequences of downloading and file sharing copywrited material.

"They think it's OK because other kids are doing it, but they can and are being fined," she said. "There are many new Web sites where these things can be downloaded legally by paying for the content." She said teens may ask their parents why they should pay when they can get these items for free. "This is an issue called cyber-ethics," she told the parents. "You have to decide where you stand on it and communicate it to your kids."

Every time someone in a family is online, it leaves that computer open for tracking, said Beckwith. And teens caught in a crackdown may be fined $1,500 for each song they've downloaded fraudulently. "You need to communicate your values and who's going to pay for it if they get caught," she said. "If you're not paying a monthly subscription fee or a per-song fee, then the Web site your children are using to download songs is not legal."

REGARDING E-MAIL, Beckwith advised both parents and teens not to send an e-mail distribution list along with their messages. Instead, they should use a blind carbon copy. Otherwise, she said, "People can then copy these addresses for themselves. It's like giving them your personal address book. If I'm a stalker or predator, I can start to gather information about children this way."

She also told parents that some children are engaging in "electronic bullying" — using text messaging, taking photos of people with cell phones and using these things to bully other kids.

"They're also using e-mail, chat rooms and mobile devices to spread rumors, lies, jokes or stories about classmates and other kids," said Beckwith. "They're using [the Internet] as a hateful tool against their own friends, and we've got kids running away from home or getting involved with drugs and alcohol because of the emotional pain [and humiliation] they've suffered."

She next discussed predators, and it was obvious by the parents' gasps and other reactions that much of what she said was new and eye-opening to them. "In person, I can say I'm a 14-year-old boy, and you know I'm lying," she said. "On the Internet, you don't know that."

Beckwith said the Internet allows pedophiles instant access to other predators, worldwide, and provides them a place to discuss their sexual desires. And they're travelers, she said. If a child spurs their interest, "they'll come from California to Chantilly" to meet that child.

She said pedophiles enter chat rooms and easily obtain information about their prey. Sometimes, they'll ask children for their phone numbers, but they won't comply because their parents have Caller I.D. and they'd have to explain who the caller is. So, instead, predators will give them an 800 number to call.

ONCE A CHILD makes that call, said Beckwith, the predator is then able to learn the parents' phone number and address, print out a map with directions to their home and even obtain the names of their 10 nearest neighbors.

Said Beckwith: "Now, [as a pedophile], I can say, 'Oh, the Johnsons; I've known them for years.' And, boom, I'm no longer a stranger. Last year, 785 kids [nationwide] were abducted and missing because of their online conduct with predators."

If such people sense a child's vulnerability, she said, "They find out what a child needs to hear and get between them and their safety network. For example, 'If I was your parent, I'd never say that to you.' And they're not just doing this with one kid, but with 100. It's their hobby and addiction."

Beckwith said pedophiles also meet children in online game rooms, playing games with them after school, on a regular basis. They learn children's screen names and begin to build familiarity with them prior to pursuing a relationship with them.

She also warned parents about online journals, or blogs, where children put in information about themselves, their age, school, etc. And clicking on a girl's screen name, for example, will bring up her profile. It also links visitors to her Web page, where she describes herself — such as "blonde, 13, friendly and outgoing" — and tells the state she lives in and even her high school's mascot. Said Beckwith: "Predators will use this information to find her."

If, for instance, a pedophile is fixated on 14-year-olds, she said, he can type in "14" and access the member profiles of all 14-year-olds online at that moment. On these profiles, said Beckwith, "He could learn a girl's last name and see photos of her. Once you post something online, it's there forever."

"I TELL KIDS, if I'm an online predator, I'll print every one of those pictures you've posted, put them up in my room and start fantasizing about you," she continued. "The kids go, 'Oh, my God.' But we need shock tactics to keep them safe because they feel invulnerable — 'it'll never happen to them.'"

That's why, said Beckwith, parents need to communicate to their children the risks they face on the Internet. She also advised them to use an Internet service provider with built-in parental controls. "MSN, Earthlink and AOL are the three best," she said.

Beckwith also said parents should have their child's password to their Internet account. "If you have no suspicions about them and they're not acting strangely, you won't use it," she said. "But if you suspect they're involved with drugs, alcohol, gangs or predators, then you have to use it. You have to [violate] their privacy to keep them safe. It's your responsibility as a parent."

Even online "buddy lists" pose a threat because pedophiles learning a child's screen name can add onto his or her buddy list and instant-message the child unless they've been blocked out. But in the "Include only these users" section, children can list the 20 friends they want to communicate with, so only these people may contact them.

"The Internet is a privilege, not a right," said Beckwith. "When you've installed parental controls onto your computer, then when kids sign onto their account, a safe site will come up."

However, Westfield High PTSA president Birgit Retson said her children "know how to bypass all this stuff," so she suggested also purchasing something called Specter Pro that enables parents to know what their children are doing online.

"IF YOU GO into your Internet service provider, you can put in mail and spam controls and type in words you don't want to see," added Beckwith. "And you can set it up for your kids so they'll never get these things. You need to be pro-active, rather than re-active."

Afterward, Retson called Beckwith's talk "fantastic" and said it was long overdue. "She had incredible information to share," said Retson. "And she really hit on the topics uppermost in parents' minds."