Children and teens love chat rooms. The problem is, sexual predators do, too.
Parents need to wake up to how dangerous and just plain raunchy chat rooms can be. The anonymity of participants, unfiltered and unlimited access by virtually anyone, and the lack of parental supervision, make for a dangerous combination.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, two out of every five children ages 15 to 17 who are abducted fall victim in connection with internet activity. The way in which children use chat rooms makes them incredibly vulnerable to weirdos who wish to do them harm.
Recent polling of teens reveals that over 50 percent who enter chat rooms -- where conversations often turn raunchy and racy -- say they have given out personal information to complete strangers, including their phone numbers, home addresses, where they go to school or their schedules.
Of course, the harm is not usually abduction, but your child is very likely to fall victim to psychological or emotional manipulation by someone preying on their sexual vulnerability. The reality is that the pervert in the dark trench-coat that your mom warned you to look out for on the playground just might be talking to your child in the privacy of your own home.
According to Donna Rice Hughes, President of Enough is Enough (EIE), a non-profit organization that teaches families how to be safe online, "We recommend that parents seriously consider disallowing chat rooms because they are very difficult to monitor. And even in the monitored ones there are no guarantees because you can't detect a disguised predator."
Donna is right. There are so many other ways for kids to chat with their friends that there is absolutely no reason for them to enter chat rooms. Social networking sites like FaceBook, where kids can mark their profiles as private, offer safe places to chat, but you should monitor those, too. (I'll address social networking tips in a future column.)
I highly recommend that parents visit EIE's great website, enough.org, where you can learn about EIE's comprehensive training program on how to help your children enjoy the Internet while staying safe. The program, "Internet Safety 101," includes a workbook and DVD that will also unlock the mysteries of the Internet for you. I am blessed to have helped found EIE back in 1991 when the biggest pornography and predatory problems were connected to local scummy porn shops. Today, under Donna's leadership, EIE has become the leading resource on how to protect children in our high-tech world. You owe it to your family to order "Internet Safety 101."
Take Donna's advice and "just say no" to chat rooms. And as for e-mail, Instant Messaging (IM) and other means of online conversations, here are a few basic pointers to go over with your children.
- Remind them that the age-old advice of "Don't talk to strangers" applies online, too.
- Explain that predators often masquerade as children online, and that they should never, ever have emotional or personal discussions with anyone.
- If any exchange becomes uncomfortable or edgy, they should tell you right away.
- Never give out personal information to anyone -- even someone they think is another child.
- Limit the amount of time kids spend talking to their friends online.
The Internet is a technological miracle that can benefit your children and their educations, if used correctly. But if left unchecked, your sons and daughters will likely fall victim to perverts, pornography and predators. Don't take that chance.