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Online predators: Help minimize the risk

Online predators: Help minimize the risk

Using Internet communication tools such as social networking, chat rooms, email, and instant messaging can put children at potential risk of encountering online predators.

The anonymity of the Internet means that trust and intimacy can develop quickly online. Predators take advantage of this anonymity to build online relationships with inexperienced young people.

Kids feel they are aware of the dangers of predators, but in reality, they are quite naive about online relationships.

Parents can help protect their kids by knowing the risks related to online communication and being involved in their kids' Internet activities.

How do online predators work?

Online predators do the following:

  • Find kids through social networking, blogs, chat rooms, instant messaging, email, discussion boards, and other websites.

  • Seduce their targets through attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts.

  • Know the latest music and hobbies likely to interest kids.

  • Listen to and sympathize with kids' problems.

  • Try to ease young people's inhibitions by gradually introducing sexual content into their conversations or by showing them sexually explicit material.

  • Might also evaluate the kids they meet online for future face-to-face contact.

How can parents minimize the risk of a child becoming a victim?

  • Talk to your kids about sexual predators and potential online dangers.

  • Use parental control software that's built into new operating systems like Windows 7 or Windows Vista or that you can download for free like Windows Live Family Safety Settings.

  • Follow age limits on social networking websites. Most social networking sites require that users be age 13 and over. If your children are under the recommended age for these sites, do not let them use them.

  • Young children should not use chat rooms—the dangers are too great. As children get older, direct them towards well-monitored kids' chat rooms. Encourage even your teens to use monitored chat rooms.

  • If your children take part in chat rooms, make sure you know which ones they visit and with whom they talk. Monitor the chat areas yourself to see what kind of conversations take place.

  • Instruct your children to never leave the chat room's public area. Many chat rooms offer private areas where users can have one-on-one chats with other users-chat monitors can't read these conversations. These are often referred to as "whisper" areas.

  • Keep the Internet-connected computer in a common area of the house, never in a child's bedroom. It is much more difficult for a predator to establish a relationship with your child if the computer screen is easily visible. Even when the computer is in a public area of your home, sit with your child when they are online.

  • When your children are young, they should share the family email address rather than have their own email accounts. As they get older, you can ask your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to set up a separate email address, but your children's mail can still reside in your account.

  • Tell your children to never respond to instant messaging or emails from strangers. If your children use computers in places outside your supervision-public library, school, or friends' homes-find out what computer safeguards are used.

  • If all precautions fail and your kids do meet an online predator, don't blame them. The offender always bears full responsibility. Take decisive action to stop your child from any further contact with this person.

How can your kids reduce the risk of being victimized?

There are a number of precautions that kids can take, including:

  • Never downloading images from an unknown source-they could be sexually explicit.

  • Using email filters.

  • Telling an adult immediately if anything that happens online makes them feel uncomfortable or frightened.

  • Choosing a gender-neutral screen name that doesn't contain sexually suggestive words or reveal personal information.

  • Never revealing personal information about themselves (including age and gender) or information about their family to anyone online and not filling out online personal profiles. For more specific rules about personal information on sites like Windows Live Spaces or MySpace, see How to help your kids use social websites more safely.

  • Stopping any email communication, instant messaging conversations, or chats if anyone starts to ask questions that are too personal or sexually suggestive.

  • Posting the family online agreement near the computer to remind them to protect their privacy on the Internet.

What can you do if your child is being targeted?

  • If your child receives sexually explicit photos from an online correspondent, or if she or he is solicited sexually in email, instant messaging, or some other way online, contact your local police. Save any documentation including email addresses, website addresses, and chat logs to share with the police.

  • Check your computer for pornographic files or any type of sexual communication—these are often warning signs.

  • Monitor your child's access to all live electronic communications, such as chat rooms, instant messaging, and email.

Source: Some of the above information was adapted, with permission, from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation publication A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety.