How to Protect Your Kids Online

The Online Predator
The six main ways predators communicate with children are:
  • Web sites
  • E-mail
  • Public chat room
  • Private chat room
  • Instant message
  • Instant messenger
The most dangerous area by far is chat.

If you have never been in a chat room and wonder what they are all about, let me explain that not all chat rooms are created equal.

Chat rooms are an offshoot of electronic bulletin boards, which are offshoots of traditional bulletin boards. At first, people posted messages, ads, and queries. When the bulletin boards went electronic, you could post responses to a posting. In chat rooms, postings and responses can be done in real time.

All chat rooms have one characteristic. They are areas of the Internet where you can exchange messages with a large number of people at one time; and where there is the option to join a group chat where everyone in the chat room can view every comment.

Chatting in the room itself is not the preferred method of a predator. Predators use chat rooms as a hunting ground to locate their victim. They look at what is being said. Is there a child of the sex and age they are looking for in the chat rooms? Is that child having a good time online, are others chatting with the child, or are the other members of the chat room picking on the child?

The predator checks the child's profile to gain further intelligence information about how to approach the child. If there is sufficient information, the predator has an opening to begin a conversation with the child. The conversation most likely will not begin in a chat room, but in a private conversation.

A private chat room is somewhat like an instant message. It creates a private space for "conversation" where both sides of the chat are displayed. However, the private chat room can be enjoyed by more than two people at a time. In fact up to twenty-three people can be in an AOL private chat room.

Every private chat room is given a name by its creator. To enter the room, you have to know the name. Although the public chat rooms on AOL are always listed in a live public directory showing the title of the room and how many people are currently chatting there, private rooms are not listed. But it is possible to accidentally stumble into a private room.

Remember that all chat programs have private chat rooms, private chatting, and instant messaging of some kind. (Due to the popularity of America Online and their instant message they sometimes receive the blame for everything, when in fact their system was never used.) Watch for Warning Signs Concerning Your Child's Online Activity
  • Is your child online late at night?
  • Is the online activity excessive (over two hours on average per day)? This, of course, is not school- or homework-related online time. As a parent, I realize that we are losing more and more of our children's at-home time to homework.
  • Is your child alone for most of the time during his or her online sessions?
  • Is your child spending the majority of his or her time online in chat rooms?
  • Is your child reluctant to talk about or evasive in describing his or her online experiences?
  • Does your child minimize the screen on the computer when you walk by? Or do you notice several programs showing in the task bar at the bottom of the screen, but no programs active on the monitor? This is a sure sign that something your child does not want you to see is hiding in the task bar.
If you see any hint of contact with an online predator, make sure you contact the police immediately, and if possible, note the following:
  • Was your problem with an instant message, instant messenger, or chat room?
  • Who is your Internet service provider? Most of the calls to our office usually go through a screening process. First we hear from the frantic parents that their child received an instant message threatening to do cause harm to their child. When we ask what service provider they have, we are told XYZ service provider, meaning it is not an instant message because they are not using America Online. By asking several follow-up questions, we can identify the ISP used and how to locate the offender. If we can find the ISP, screen name, and exact time, the chances of catching the predator are extremely high.
However, a typical complaint goes something like this:

PARENT : My child was online chatting last night and this horrible person said he was going to hurt my child.
OFFICER: What was the screen name of the subject that said this to your child?
PARENT : Well, I think his screen name was BADGUY123 or something like that.
OFFICER: What Internet service provider do you use?
PARENT : My child was on one of the two ISPs we have. I am not sure which one because my child closed the ISP before telling me about the problem.
OFFICER: At what time exactly did this occur?
PARENT : I think the time was maybe seven or eight last night.
As you can see, this leaves law enforcement with almost an insurmountable amount of obstacles. When tracking down offenders on the Internet, we need to be specific- down to the second and in the proper time zone-or we will more than likely not be able to resolve the complaint and identify a subject.

Why Our Best Defense Is Education

Innovative software advances will help mightily, but the solutions in the marketplace would stifle the current threat from predators to a minimum. One of the biggest problems of the Internet is the false sense of security both parents and predators have. The false sense of security leads predators onto the Internet to find their victims. A false sense of security leads parents to avoid taking the easy and necessary steps to protect their children. It is amazing to me how many predators are truly unaware of how easy it is to find them. They don't understand the technology, or certainly less so than the people who work diligently at software companies to outwit them. The typical predator receives his computer, Internet connection, and software through his company, a company that intended him to keep in contact with the home office. The predators never receive training in advanced technology. Their ignorance leads them to flock to the Internet in great numbers. The fact that parents do not have knowledge about simple software solutions leads their children, unprotected, out onto the Internet in great numbers. The strength of the predators lies in their numbers.

Our defense lies not only in getting the message out to parents and children, but also in a mission to educate the predators themselves, because far fewer of them would be trolling online for victims if they knew how easily they are identified and caught by software. Many parents feel helpless in the face of technology. Because we feel helpless, we avoid taking on the responsibilities that, in other areas of child safety, we are happy to deal with. Just because it is a pain to remind our kids to wear their helmets when skating, or playing sports, doesn't mean we avoid dealing with it. Just because our children are sitting at home tapping on the computer doesn't mean they are facing an even greater potential danger from the Internet than from falling off a skateboard.

Protecting our children on the Internet is not difficult once you have mastered the basics of the computer. And as parents we have signed on, from the day our children were born, to an awesome responsibility for their well-being. We have also signed on to teach them, guide them, and watch them as they grow and learn.