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Parents key in protecting children online

Posted August 8, 2008

— Despite improved security features designed to help protect children on social networking sites, Internet safety experts say there will always be flaws, and that's why much of the responsibility to protect children falls on parents.

"No security system is perfect, just as a driver's license is never fool proof," said Jay Chaudhuri, special counsel to North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, who led a national push to get sites like Myspace and Facebook to increase security.

Evidence of the systems' imperfections are clear after Cary police arrested Dakota Walter Lee Melton, 21, and charged him with taking indecent liberties with a 12-year-old Sanford boy.

Investigators won't talk about the case, but search warrants indicate Melton allegedly met the boy online through Myspace, chatted with him, picked him up and brought him to Cary. Police are still investigating.

"Predators, they groom and so develop these relationships over a long period of time, and they're grooming multiple children at a time," Chaudhuri said. "Social networking sites allow them to do this very easily."

Last May, Myspace took down 29,000 pages while implementing a block list of known sexual offenders.

That's actually an easy thing to do but doesn't help that much, says Linda Criddle, president of Look Both Ways, a consultant company that works to educate parents and children on the dangers of the Internet.

"What isn't said is that most sexual predators have never been arrested or convicted, so most sexual predator won't be blocked by that lack of technology to filter," she said.

Criddle says communication and clear expectations defined between both parents and their children is one of the most effective ways to help children safe.

"One of the worst things that parents do is set up an oppositional environment," she said. "Parental control is such a negative phrase. No kid wants to be controlled."

For example, she advises parents to explain to children the reasons behind their actions and offer specific examples of the consequences of communicating with strangers.

"If, instead, you say, let's have a collaborative environment – this is why we're doing this, because you don't want to be ripped off, hurt, scammed, or put our home at risk of being robbed – then, you can start having a collaborative experience that can help teach things."

It's also important to look at the emotional risk factors a child might have to know when to put extra controls in place. Children between ages 12 and 15 are the most vulnerable to sexual predators, Criddle says.

"That's when kids start to reach out. You know, 'I understand my family circle and values and friends, now I want to meet new people.'"

But Criddle said there is a category of social networking where children can have a positive experience, with some limitations.

For example, she advises parents to:

  • Research and use the Internet and understand what their children do online. "You do not have to be some kind of 'tech-spert' in order to help your kids be safe online."
  • Set clear rules on what type of information can be posted – nothing of a private nature should go on there.
  • Set profiles to private, and allow only people that both parents and children feel comfortable with seeing information.
  • Refrain from allowing children to inviting new friends to join their site.
  • Realize that even if a page is private, it's not really private.

"On Myspace, in particular, when a child sets their site to be private, their photo still displays. Their name still displays, their location, their age, and any quote they have still displays," Criddle said. "With all that information, it's not private. Myspace has intentionally exposed them with considerable risk."

Last year, Cooper led the charge to get social sites to add extensive measures to combat sexual predators and helped launch a national Internet Safety Task Force of leading technology companies and social networking sites working to develop age and identity verification tools to help better protect children.

A report is due by the end of the year.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • carlb20 Aug 8, 2008

    What a radical new concept! Parents actually taking a key role in raising their own children??? Where will this lead,parents blaming themselves instead of McDonalds for their childrens obesity, blaming video games for their childrens violent behavior, or God forbid, actually DISCIPLINING their children?!? As a parent of four boys, I think it's way past time we stopped letting everyone else in America raise our children and then file lawsuits when they don't turn out as we expect them to. As parents, the responsibility falls on us, and if our children wind up being gangbangers, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

  • gegesbeachhouse Aug 8, 2008

    Con't... You would not want people photographing your two year old without your permission. The same should ring true for your teen, tween or 20 something. Please remind your children that they should not allow people to to take pics of them that they do not know. You can only control your image so much. All someone has to do is take a pic of you at a bar, photoshop it or not, and post it on the net for all to see! My best advice is to always conduct yourself and dress yourself as if your every action were be being recorded and your parents, grandparents, future employer, spouse, teacher or professor, were going to have full access to it. You are also judged by those that you associate with. Just b/c you weren't behaving inappropriately doesn't mean that your character will not be called into question b/c your best friends were!

  • gegesbeachhouse Aug 8, 2008

    Another thing that needs to be considered is that the internet, especially sites like myspace and facebook are used to investigate cases by law enforcement and the court system. If your child is posting pictures of themselves or others, they can be used to aide in the prosecution of cases and call into question the character of those pictured. Your child may believe that she is posting pictures of herself, making what she may believe are harmless but could be considered seductive gestures. Lets assume weeks after posting these pictures, she becomes the victim of a sexual assault or sexual harrasment. While it should not be considered when determining the guilt or innocence of a person, these images can be brought to the attention of a judge and/or jury and it will, aside from being embarassing, cause her to have her character called into question. These images can and will be seen by future employers, coworkers, teachers, friends and girl friends/boy friends.

  • jse830fcnawa030klgmvnnaw+ Aug 8, 2008

    Parents are the key, but they also have to be knowledgeable about computer use and Internet access. Too many think the home computer is like a refrigerator ... turn it on and forget about it.

  • foetine Aug 8, 2008

    the best thing a parent can do is convert to Amish beliefs.

  • HopingForABetterWorld Aug 8, 2008

    PaulRevere...my thoughts exactly. This isn't news. Parents are key in everything. Believe it or not, it's not teachers that are key. It's not athletes. It's not the friends. It's the parents. Always has been, always will be. This is nothing new, just something many parents wish they could ignore and push off to someone else.

  • PaulRevere Aug 8, 2008

    Parents have to be parents?!?!!? Someone call the media!

  • brendajpreston1 Aug 8, 2008

    As a Mom with a teenage son, I have learned to take the internet very seriously. I understand that we can never make sexual predators and bullies go away, but it is my responsibility to do all I can to keep them away from my son. I did some research to find a good social network that was safe for my son. I found an age appropriate, socially responsible website for children ages 5-18. This site requires a child's school verify his or her identification before they can become a member. This site is content monitored, cyber bullying controlled, even has tutoring available. My son can still play games, im, create a webpage, and email all on a safe and monitored site. Children are on different ilands according to their ages, creating ilands of safety for children. All the employees must have a level 2 background check. Both sites are totally free to its users. The site for parents, teachers, law enforcement is www.safewave.org and the site for kids is www.iland5.com