Are Children Safe On-Line?

Are Children Safe On-Line?

What parent's don't know could hurt their children.

Last year 785 children were abducted by someone they met on-line, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

"Once a child talks to a person three times [on-line] they don't think of them as a stranger anymore," said Iris Beckwith, Childhelp USA director of prevention programs.

Last week, Beckwith spoke to approximately 30 Crossfield Elementary School parents about keeping children safe in an Internet world.

"Kids are living on-line, so we have to make sure they're doing it safely," said Beckwith, adding that the Internet, although scary to some parents, can be a great information tool.

During her 90-minute presentation, Beckwith used personal on-line examples and children's reactions to her school presentations, to better educate parents about what children are doing on-line, and how to protect them.

"When we ask the kids 'how many of you think you know more about the Internet than your parents do?' 90 percent of them raise their hands — and that's not bragging," said Beckwith of the more than 24,000 students she has given her safe Internet use presentation to in the last year.

"Parents are lulling themselves in this kind of la-la land," said Beckwith of the general parental consensus that their children are safe. "Unless they stumble on to it, they won't know about it."

Marylee Querelo, Crossfield Elementary School PTA president and mother of two, said they set up Internet rules immediately for their children, to bypass any problems.

"I'm very strict, my children know they can't use the Internet unless they are supervised," said Querelo, adding they sign them on to the parental control pages. "I think parental controls are excellent."

IN HER PRESENTATION, Beckwith showed overheads of what parental controlled web pages looked like for various age groups, adding that many of the "high end" Internet Service Providers (ISPs), like America Online, MSN or Earthlink, offer these services which can also be overlayed on a broadband connection.

"I'm here to tell you, be a parent to your child — keep them in mind," she said in her presentation. "I urge anyone who has a child ... to find an ISP that has a strong parental safety controls."

Without parental controls or supervision, Beckwith showed parents how easy it is for children to stumble on inappropriate material or be contacted by strangers who may lie about their age to meet children.

"All [predators] have to do is groom the child — after a while they break down the child and ask for a [phone] number," said Beckwith, adding once a predator has that they can learn the address of the child, along with much more.

"These stories are out there, in every city, every county, in every part of the world," she said.

In 1999, the Crimes Against Children Research Center conducted a survey of 1,501 children, ages 10- to 17-years, about their on-line experiences.

Researchers found 19 percent, or one in five, of the young Internet users received unwanted sexual solicitations.

Five percent of those surveyed said they received distressing sexual solicitations, while three percent said they received aggressive solicitations involving attempts or requests for contact outside of the Internet.

"THE SCARIEST thing is the persistence these predators on the Internet have," said Querelo. "It's scary with the different names they use, how vigilant they will be to groom these kids and break down the barriers."

Querelo said she was upset to see such a small turnout at Beckwith's presentation because there is so much out there that parents may think they know, when in fact they do not.

"Once a parent becomes keen as to what can happen, I think they would care more," said Querelo.

Ken Nysmith, director of Nysmith school in Herndon, said because their students tend to be technologically oriented he had Beckwith give her student version of her Internet safety program.

"When she asked how many children had email access and IM [Instant Messenger] I was shocked," said Nysmith. "I had no idea that kind of portion — I am guessing about 20 percent of third graders have IM."

Nysmith said although he has thought about holding a session for parents, it's hard draw parents because of time constraints as well as their idea that "it's not my child."

Beckwith suggested to parents uncomfortable with the computer to take computer classes, ask a friend or even their children — who usually want to show off their skills — so they will know if their child is safe.

She also reiterated it is the job of a parent to be nosy about their child's actions on-line, even if children don't like it.

"Parents have to be proactive about what it is their children are doing," said Beckwith. "You can't put all the responsibility on the ISPs."