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Are your kids safe on the Internet?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In the short time we have been living in the 21st century, there are many technological advances that have made people connect in ways they never thought of before. Though Internet chat-rooms and networking places like MySpace and Facebook might be great for meeting new people who share the same interests, they can be dangerous tools in the hands of predators, cyber-bullies and cyberstalkers.

Parents of the new-age, computer savvy generation may find it difficult to protect their children from these cyber-world dangers. These difficulties mainly arise with parents who know very little about the Internet and how to use it. Some parents might also get the sense that their child is safe and that, "Nothing like that can happen around here."

Many families in the Izard, Fulton and Sharp County areas live in secluded rural neighborhoods. This seclusion may make parents believe their child is fairly safe, but if a computer is in the household, there is no such thing as seclusion, especially on the Internet.

Just last year, in Izard County, Stacy Lynn Tucker, a former band teacher at ICC, was arrested in an Internet sting operation where an investigator was posing as a 14-year-old girl. Tucker made sexual advances in a chat-room to a person he believed to be a teenage girl but was actually an under cover investigator. If predators and all-around bad people are so close to home, they can be around every corner on the Internet.

Cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment are also big problems on social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and chat-rooms.

The Web site www.stopcyberbullying.org states that there is a difference between cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment. Cyber-bullying involves negative conversations between minors through any electronic means of communication. Cyber-harassment is where an adult is involved in harassing a minor by using negative words over the Internet or other form of electronic communication.

In November 2008, Lori Drew, 49, of the St. Louis, Mo., area, was convicted in Los Angeles, Calif., of three counts of illegally accessing computers for the use of harassing a 13-year-old girl on MySpace, who eventually committed suicide. Since the Drew case came about in 2006, Missouri has created anti-cyber-harassment laws. There have also been suicide cases around the nation where cyber-bullying was involved.

Parents, teens and children can go online and Google, or search, for Internet safety tips, and they will come up with thousands of hits. The list provided below is from www.netsmartz.org, which is supported by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

* Clear, simple, easy-to-read house rules should be posted on or near the monitor. Create your own computer rules or print the Internet safety pledge (on the Web site). The pledge can be signed by adults and children and should be periodically reviewed.

* Look into safeguarding programs or options your online service provider might offer. These may include monitoring or filtering capabilities.

* Always read a Web site's privacy policy before giving any personal information. Also make sure that a Web site offers a secure connection before giving credit-card information.

* Web sites for children are not permitted to request personal information without a parent's permission. Talk to children about what personal information is and why you should never give it to people online.

* If children use chat or e-mail, talk to them about never meeting in person with anyone they first "met" online.

* Talk to children about not responding to offensive or dangerous e-mail, chat or other communications. Report any such communication to local law enforcement. Do not delete the offensive or dangerous e-mail; turn off the monitor and contact local law enforcement.

* Keep the computer in the family room or another open area of your home.

* Get informed about computers and the Internet. Visit the resources section (on the Web site) to find additional information on Internet safety.

* Let children show you what they can do online and visit their favorite sites.

* Have children use child-friendly search engines when completing homework.

* Know who children are exchanging e-mails with and only let them use chat areas when you can supervise. NetSmartz recommends limiting chat-room access to child-friendly chat sites.

* Be aware of any other computers your child may be using.

* Internet accounts should be in the parent's name with parents having the primary screen name, controlling passwords, and using blocking and/or filtering devices.

* Children should not complete a profile for a service provider and children's screen names should be nondescript so as not to identify that the user is a child.

* Talk to children about what to do if they see something that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable or confused. Show them how to turn off the monitor and emphasize that it's not their fault if they see something upsetting. Remind children to tell a trusted adult if they see something that bothers them online.

* Consider using filtering or monitoring software for your computer. Filtering products that use whitelisting, which only allows a child access to a preapproved list of sites, are recommended for children in this age group. NetSmartz does not advocate using filters only; education is a key part of prevention. Visit the resources section (on the Web site) for Web sites that provide information on filtering or blocking software.

* If you suspect online "stalking" or sexual exploitation of a child, report it to your local law enforcement agency. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has a system for identifying online predators and child pornographers and contributing to law enforcement investigations. It's called the CyberTipline. Leads forwarded to the site will be acknowledged and shared with the appropriate law enforcement agency for investigation.

For more Internet safety tips or tips on how to deal with cyber-bullying or harassment or Internet predators, there are several useful Web sites online. These Web sites can be found by typing in the key words cyber-bullying, cyber-harassment, Internet predators or Internet safety on any search engine.

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