Thursday, July 5, 2007

Kids Online

This was originally posted two years ago at the now defunct community blog, where I was once upon a time, a contributor. I've only slightly updated it, as the information is still quite timely:

Let me give a little of my internet background experience. 1993 I bought my first computer, and loaded Prodigy, on a 5” disk, onto the machine. I had no idea what I was doing, as I had never even touched a computer, until that day. The Commodore vic-something-or-other I had in the late 80’s doesn’t count, because all I could ever figure out to do with it, was basically useless. After loading this software, I figured out how to connect to this Prodigy thing, at a lightning rate of 1200 baud. I was so cool.

Within a few months I was fairly comfortable being "online" (that was back when people actually called it 'the information superhighway', believe it or not) and one of the first people I met on Prodigy was a detective named Frank, with a southern California city police department. The way I met him is a blog post (or a small paperback) all it’s own. Suffice it say, he was a great blessing and a great encouragement in my life, for the next several years.

It was through Frank, that I learned about the online pedophile issue. I had never heard of it before then, and had never even imagined it existed. Frank has already been investigating cases of this nature for several years at this point. Remember, this was 1993 when I met him. He became an expert in online crime against children (and online fraud) in the late 80's - early 90's. This was 17+ years ago. It's almost strange to consider that the internet has been part of our lives for this long already, but it certainly has.

A few months ago, while looking for some important papers, I was thumbing through an old file cabinet, and came across some literature Frank used, when he held seminars and teaching sessions at various police departments around the country, and in Canada. One of the pages listed an online safety checklist, for parents. One of the things that leaped off the page for me, was this:

Never allow a pc in a child’s bedroom. Always keep your home pc in a common area of the house.

It seemed like perfectly sound, common sense, when I read that in 1993. I knew very few people that had a computer in their house anyway, and the ones that did, most of them had it in a common area.

A lot has changed in the last decade. I cannot count the amount of people I know, online and offline, that allow their children to have a pc in their bedroom. Some families even have kids as young as 4-5 years old, to have online access, from their rooms. Without question nearly every single "online saftey" site you'll find, will tell parents NOT to do this, and yet parents still do it.

One of the best changes in the last decade, is the safety and security of various types of net-watchers, or net-nannies. Back then, the net-nanny was mom and dad saying "you can’t go there". Now, you can easily lock yourself out of your own favorite sites, if you place your software on a high setting, to protect your kids. Parental tools have really come a long way, and for that I’m very glad.

One of the other huge changes, is the amount of kids online now, as compared to then. The amount of kids, unfortunately, also increases the amount of risks and the amount of cases of kids being targeted by predators, online (which all too often leads to offline encounters, and crimes against the children).

Many parents do not know that there are child predators online, using children-personas to meet other kids. They frequent children’s chats, children’s forums, and children’s educational & entertainment sites. Child predators online, or offline, always follow the same MO. They place themselves within easy access to children. Where it used to be the neighborhood playground, or the local scout troop, now it’s also the internet, with the added bonus for them, of the anonymity.

Many parents also do not know, that at any given time, in any given state or province, there are trained law enforcement agents online, tracking the movements of these suspects. Some of them also take on child-personas themselves, as bait. (Sick world, isn't it, when the cops themselves know they can pose as children online, and snag a pervert that wants to hurt that child?)

It’s been many years since I’ve spoken to any of the law enforcement officers that were doing this in 1993-1995, but when I was thumbing through that file cabinet recently, I also found an old address book. On every page of this book, was a name, address, phone number and email address of either a law enforcement agent (local, state and federal), reporter, investigator, (federal and local) prosecutor, senator, or some other influential person, working in this field.

Listed there was the man who was at the time, Senator Exon’s personal assistant, while he was drafting the Communications Decency Act. In the same file were faded fax pages of information he had sent me, over a matter of months, while the legislation was being drafted.

I was involved in this topic, up to my eyeballs. I was asked once to make myself available at one point to testify before Congress, based on my own personal experience (which I will not go into here) and my own 3 year long research into this, at that time. I never did testify, as circumstances warranted that I didn’t need to. Not long after, the case I was personally involved in, was resolved (judicially) and I tried very hard to put it all behind me.

One thing I cannot seem to put behind me, is the shock I always feel, when I hear of a kid blogging... or a kid with a website... or a kid online, from the comfort of his own room. I hope and pray that this child is protected and safeguarded with software and a keenly observant parent. Sadly, I know from stats even 10 years ago, that were consistently on the the rise in every state and province, that far too many of these kids are not being properly supervised online.

Our pc has always been kept in a common area of the house. When the older girls did go online, they did so with iron-clad restrictions one what/when/where they could surf. When they did break the rules (and they did) they were banned from the pc for a certain amount of time. I was militant about this – and I had every reason to be. I knew too many details from too many undercover officers online, and other investigators, to not take this as serious as it is.
Our (almost) 15 yr old isn’t the least bit interested in the internet. Once in a while she asks one of us to load a site for her so she can see some info, or enter a contest, but that’s about it. Her passion is singing and drawing – she doesn’t have time to be bothered with the computer. She did go through a phase about a year ago though, where she wrote stories, poems, and played around with the mspaint program. That didn’t last long, however. (Updated two years later - she's online now and strictly monitored with the same rules her older sisters had when they were still at home).

Our younger ones will gradually be introduced to the concept of the internet as time goes by – online safety – being the #1 lesson, and daily reminder lesson. Right now though, at 7, 6, 4 and 2 they couldn’t care less about it. There are trees to climb, bikes to ride, and frogs to catch. (Updated two years later: they enjoy the "kid sites" when Kev loads a page for them, and our 8 yr old loves to play Solitaire offline, but they still don't have a whole lot of interest in "being online").

I wrote all this for 1 reason, and 1 reason only. To say this:

If your children/teens are online – please – monitor where they go, what they do, who they talk to, and how they’re using the web. Please make online safety a part of your pc use, so that your children can enjoy the ‘net the way they ought to be able to. Check their emails (ingoing and outgoing), their blog commenters, and any other communication they’re involved in. NO, this is not snooping, these are precautions that every parent with kids online, should take.

Below are some reputable sites that deal with this very issue. Please take the time to read them, for your peace of mind, and for your child’s online safety.

You should also read this 07/03/07 MarketWatch article:

Five Tips to Protect Children From Unsavory Online Content