The camera pans in on his trembling hands.
"She said she was 18…" he whispers – one final, futile effort to convince millions of TV viewers he's not a monster.
But the damage is done. We saw the transcripts of his sexually explicit e-mails to a "teen." We watched him bring her a six pack and a box of condoms. We heard him ask where her parents were.
Shows like NBC's To Catch a Predator simultaneously repulse and rivet us. We can't bear knowing men like this are stalking our kids – but we can't bear not knowing what they're up to. And in the wee hours after the show airs, when we've tossed and turned in the darkness, some of us long to sneak to the basement and rip the Internet cable from its jack.
If only it were that simple. But many people's livelihoods depend on Web access. Schools often require extensive online research. And let's face it, the Internet can be an amazing tool…but only if we're vigilant in our efforts to protect our kids from it's dark underbelly.
If you're feeling a little anxious, wondering how to shield your children in our technology-saturated world, take heart! The articles in this section will detail some crucial concerns and offer suggestions for communicating with your kids about online safety.
In the 50s, it was the malt shop. In the 80's, the roller rink. Today, more and more kids choose the Internet as their primary "hang out." But now, the bullies don't ride up on motorcycles waving their fists; they harass and humiliate others online with crude images and invectives. Predators don't have to lurk in the back alley; they can enter the clubhouse posing as one of the gang. And who needs to smuggle in Playboys? Those shots are nothing compared to the material shoved in front of them on the Web.
Want to know what's really happening in the virtual rec room? Check out some recent statistics:
- In one survey, 43 percent of teens with profiles on social networking sites and 32 percent of teens online reported they'd been contacted by strangers; 21 percent of these admitted to following up on the solicitation.Sinrod, Eric J. "Are Kids Playing It Safe Online?" CNET News.Com. 18 July 2007. 1 Oct. 2007 (http://news.cnet.com/2100-1032_3-6197209.html*).
- Research in 2005 showed one in three 10 to 17-year-olds surveyed had been exposed to unwanted pornography, much of which included images of people engaged in sex acts or acting out in sexually deviant or violent ways."New Study Shows Youth Online Exposed to More Sexual Material and Harassment." Missingkids.Com. 9 Aug. 2006. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 1 Oct. 2007 (http://www.missingkids.com/missingkids/servlet/NewsEventServlet?LanguageCountry=en_US&PageId=2529*).
- Roughly 6.8 million kids have been victims of online peer harassment. Almost 40 percent of the victims said they didn't tell anyone about the bullying.Olsen, Stefanie. "Growing Concerns Over Cyberbullying." CNET News.Com. 30 Mar. 2007. 1 Oct. 2007 (http://www.cnet.com/4520-13384_1-6721012-1.html?tag=feat.1*).
As a parent, you may feel overwhelmed by the task before you – but you're far from powerless! Beyond the obvious need to pray relentlessly for your kids,
Be watchful. Set up clear guidelines, or even a contract, concerning your kids' cell or Internet use. Be sure you have their passwords/access to their online pages or communications. Spot check frequently.
Understand technology…and its shortcomings. Know what MySpace or your child's cell phone plan allow him to do. You may find you can limit or disable certain features for added peace of mind. Content blocking software is great, but not foolproof – and certainly no substitute for parental vigilance.
Make the rules fit the child. A younger child or less mature teen may require more regulation online than his siblings or friends. Whether or not it seems "fair," your specialized rules may protect children from stumbling upon situations they're ill-equipped to handle. Remember that emotionally disturbed, socially isolated or depressed kids are more susceptible to predators.
Caution Your Kids
As you begin conversing about Internet use – and setting boundaries – expect indignation. Explain to kids that it isn't them you don't trust…it's all the people in cyberspace that you don't know! Urge them to
Maintain privacy. Tell them not to post personal information, especially facts that would allow someone to track them down. Remind them to limit who can see their posts to real life friends. Urge them never to divulge passwords…even to a best bud.
Maintain integrity. Even "good" kids often check their morals and judgment at the keyboard. While they'd never stroll naked through a stadium, they might not think twice about posting suggestive photos of themselves. Encourage young people to consider how God would react if He came upon their MySpace page or Web site, or if He viewed their communications or surfing practices.
Think about long-term consequences. Reinforce the value of a good reputation. Deleting content from a social networking site may not make it disappear permanently; some pages are actually archived and retrievable! Let teens know that college admissions staff members or potential employers often look kids up online to get a feel for their character. In addition, teens need to realize that the words they write or pictures they post or send of others, even in jest, can leave lasting scars.