Computers and the Internet have become an important part of our lives and our children's lives. An estimated 77 million American children and teens are now online, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Youngsters spend time online messaging, chatting, searching, and surfing. Although most of these Internet experiences are likely positive, parents need to be aware of the dangers to better protect their children.
Children and teens can become victims through online chat rooms, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A computer-sex offender can be any age, male or female. Children and youths often don't realize the potential danger of these contacts, the FBI says.
How can you tell if your child might be in contact with an offender? Here are some possible warning signs, the FBI says:
Your child spends a lot of time online, particularly at night. This is especially true for kids who are in chat rooms for long periods.
You find sexually explicit material on your child's computer. If the computer is used by other family members, the child might try to hide the material on disks.
Your child quickly changes the screen on the monitor when you come into the room
Your child receives phone calls from adults you don't know, or receives mail or packages from someone you don't know. Check your phone bill for unknown or charged numbers. But be aware that some computer-sex offenders have toll-free numbers so potential victims can call them without the phone calls showing up on the family phone bill.
If you suspect that your child is communicating with a computer predator online, talk to your child and share your concerns. Look at the files on your child's computer, including your child's emails. Use Caller ID to find out who is calling your child; you may also be able to block specific numbers.
Here are some ideas from the FBI on how to limit the chances that someone online will take advantage of your child:
Talk to your child about the potential online dangers.
Spend time with your child online and have him or her show you favorite Web sites and online destinations.
Keep the computer in a room used by the entire family, not in the child's bedroom.
Use the parental controls that your Internet service provider offers, as well as blocking software. Monitor chat room use.
Maintain access to your child's online account and randomly check his or her email.
Find out what safeguards are in place at other places where your child may use a computer, such as school, the public library, or friends' homes.
Tell your child never to arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone he or she has met online; post photographs of himself or herself to strangers; or give out identifying information, such as name, address, school name, or telephone number.
Tell your child that what he or she may be told online may or may not be true.