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June 2007

Is Your Child Safe Online?

I recently heard a fascinating presentation by Eric Szatkowski, a special agent for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, on the dangers of online predators. As a parent of two young children who both spend time online, I was very interested to learn more about the dangers of online predators and what I can do as a parent to limit the potential danger to my children. Hopefully the information in this month’s column will be helpful to you as well.

Should I Really Worry About Online Predators?

The short answer is YES! Agent Szatkowski recited some very troubling statistics. First, law enforcement authorities across the country received more than 76,000 tips this past year from the public about potential illegal online solicitation of minor children. Incredibly, since 2002 more than 6.7 million images have been submitted by law enforcement for victim identification. Of course, this means law enforcement authorities thought the online images likely violated federal or state criminal laws. These tips and successful victim identification led to 4,000 arrests nationwide. In Wisconsin, Szatkowski told us that he alone has arrested 70 individuals as alleged sexual predators. Apparently, this is an all-too-busy area of work for law enforcement. Statewide there are 17,000 registered sex offenders and 600,000 nationwide.

Agent Szatkowski also said that the average age a child is exposed to pornography has fallen to 8 from 15, the average age of exposure prior to the Internet. He then explained there currently are an estimated 30,000 pornography websites. He also told that in 2005 the federal government surveyed 1,500 children who were between the ages of 10 and 17 and learned that one in seven had received a sexual solicitation online, one in three had an unwanted exposure to sexually inappropriate material online, and one in 33 had received an “aggressive solicitation.”

Do Parents Fully Understand the Danger? 

Szatkowski expressed frustration that many parents do not fully understand the dangers of the Internet. However, he also noted that the Internet is the first technology where children are typically more advanced in its usage than are parents and grandparents. He noted that we teach children about “good touch, bad touch,” “stranger danger,” and other types of ways to get children to understand they are at risk when walking home from school, when playing in the neighborhood, etc. However, he said parents often don’t warn their children of similar danger from the Internet, noting that this is likely because parents often feel too overwhelmed about this new communications technology. He said parents need to recognize that usually “no one is looking and no one is checking” when it comes to Internet usage. He concluded, “Online predator dangers are no different than the child being grabbed off the street in an Amber Alert. Both still can end up dead.”

Becoming an Online Victim 

Agent Szatkowski said children run the risk of being victimized if they: 1) visit Internet pornography sites that include chatrooms, 2) enter online chat rooms for adults, 3) encounter preying adults visiting online chat rooms for children while posing as children, 4) engage in instant messaging, 5) play interactive games online, and (6) place personal information and photos online. You may recall that the last avenue—on Internet services such as MySpace.com—is something I have written about in previous columns. All the above-mentioned methods give a predator the opportunity to discover personal information about a potential victim, including a child’s home address and phone number, while often posing as the child’s online friend.
Szatkowski argues the Internet has “provided unlimited access to victims and unlimited numbers of victims.” He also said that his experience has unfortunately taught him, “Kids willingly participate in their own exploitation.” He stressed, “Online predators aren’t just looking, they’re molesting.”

Tips for Safe Internet Usage

Following are 10 tips presented by Agent Szatkowski for safe Internet usage—tips that he enforces with his own children:
• Use online filters such as www.bsafehome.com, www.netnanny.com, or www.cybersitter.com to ensure your child doesn’t visit inappropriate sites;
• Do not allow your child to instant message on such sites as Yahoo Messenger and Eyeball Chat;
• Do not allow your children to engage in online gaming;
• Do not allow your children to have a personal site on MySpace.com or similar networking sites, particularly where they place personal information that could be of interest to criminals;
• Place home computers in a common area and not in a child’s bedroom;
• Use monitoring software available at www.guardiansoftware.com or www.spectorsoft.com;
• Never forget the need for parental supervision and trust your child, but also verify where the child is going to on the Internet;
• Know that children can attempt to circumvent software filters;
• Know where, outside of the home, your child could get online; and
• Make sure your child is careful with cell and video phones.


For more information about the dangers of online predators and information on how you can combat this crime, you may go to the following two websites sponsored by the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children: www.ncmec.org and www.netsmartz.org (an interactive site for kids, parents, educators, and law enforcement). You can report suspicious online behavior to www.cybertip.org and find out where registered sex offenders live by going to www.familywatchdog.us. If you want to know more about online chat and computer terms, you can go to www.netlingo.com.

Have a safe summer.

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