Are your kids web wise?

Rebecca Hagelin

12/10/2004 12:00:00 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

Like many of today?s 12-year-old girls, my daughter can type up a storm ?chatting? with her little friends online. As a matter of fact, Kristin seems to type just as quickly as she talks ? a mile a minute.

It?s a good thing she?s fast, because I allow her to cyber-chat only a few minutes a day. Sometimes Kristin?s instant written conversations with her friends (although brief) are so much like ?real? conversations that she laughs out loud, or talks while she?s typing, as if her friend is right there in the room. I marvel at the technology and the incredible benefits it offers her generation.

But I?m also keenly aware of the dangers of both surfing the Net and allowing kids to chat online. Our computers are safely located in an open room so they can be easily monitored. It?s a very bad idea to put TVs or computers in kids? bedrooms ? you never know who or what they might come across or how much time they might spend blankly staring at the screen.

Kristin falls into the all-too-vulnerable middle-school-age group of kids who spend large amounts of time on the Net for both entertainment and social interaction. I?ve written many times about the risks associated with ?random? Internet surfing ? stats reveal, for example, that children as young as five are now regularly being exposed to porn online. It?s a devastating problem that destroys the innocence of our children and threatens their emotional, moral, social and spiritual development.

Of course, the problem can easily be avoided by installing an Internet filter (we use American Family Association?s). But even computers with filters pose huge risks when kids are allowed to enter online chat rooms. Many parents mistakenly think that their kids are safe, simply ?talking? with friends, when in fact, perverted strangers may actually be stalking them.

Thankfully, this is a threat of which I am well aware through my involvement with a great non-profit organization called Web Wise Kids (www.webwisekids.com) that teaches parents and children how to protect themselves from online predators. But some parents are still naive about exactly who might be having intimate conversations with their young daughters and sons on the other side of the computer screen. Here are a few alarming facts every parent should know (all of which can be found and referenced on webwisekids.com).

- The FBI estimates that of the 45 million U.S. kids who use the Internet, fully one-fifth have received a sexual advance online.
- Nearly 60% of teens surveyed have received an instant message or e-mail from a stranger and 50% report interacting via e-mail or instant messaging with someone they haven?t met before.
- 30% of teen girls in one poll said they had been sexually harassed in a chat room. Only 7%, however, told their parents for fear that their Internet access would be restricted.
- 86% of the girls polled said they could chat online without their parents? knowledge; 54 percent could conduct a cyber relationship.
- Boys are more likely than girls to talk to strangers in ?open? chat rooms. Girls are more inclined to chat in ?closed? chat room situations such as Instant Messaging, without recognizing that strangers are able to eavesdrop and track kids through their online profiles.

If you?re like most parents, you haven?t really thought much about the dangers of aimless online chats. But you are the protector: It?s up to you to leave your techno-comfort zone and learn about this ?brave new world.?

A great way to get started is to order the computer game, Missing, that WebWiseKids has used in hundreds of schools to teach adults and kids how to be safe online. It?s easy to use, and is endorsed by The Salvation Army, Boys and Girls Clubs, many public and private schools, and the Los Angeles Police Department, just to name a few. In the game, kids must attempt to rescue a teen that has been enticed to live ?the good life? with an adult he meets online. The situation is extremely realistic, because it?s modeled on the techniques of perverts who stalk kids in the real world. Kids learn to recognize dangerous patterns of online conversations and what to do if they find themselves in such a situation.

One of the game?s biggest fans is Katie, who nearly fell victim to a 22-year-old she met online. Because Katie had played Missing, she recognized the e-mail pattern of the man she had begun to fall ?in love? with as a predator, and told her parents of her fears. Her folks contacted law enforcement and handed over all the computer records of the conversations. Sure enough, Katie?s ?boyfriend? turned out to be the primary suspect in the rape of a 13-year-old girl. With Katie?s testimony about his method of seduction, which matched the testimony of his rape victim, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Katie avoided falling victim to the worst of crimes.

Don?t let your kids fall victim. Contact WebWiseKids today.