The reality is that a computer opens up your home to the world. "Although the Internet offers many benefits to youth, it gives offenders access to children when they are supposedly 'safe' at home," said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
One in five children is sexually solicited online, according to Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth, issued by NCMEC, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. Researchers talked to 1,501 children ages 10-17 and published their results in June 2000. They found that 70 percent of inappropriate solicitations of children occur while a child is using a home computer. Yet only 25 percent of children receiving a sexual solicitation told a parent or guardian.
Parents and guardians of girls should be especially concerned. Two-thirds of these solicitations are aimed at teen girls. Your daughter may not associate the seemingly friendly, flattering, and supportive older guys online with someone who means her harm. And she may not think it can happen to her.
Like many other parents or guardians you may think you can keep your children safer from online threats by telling them to avoid "strangers." But using the word "stranger" with a child does not carry the impact you might think, said McBride.
"Children don't think about a 'stranger' the way a parent does," said McBride. "A child thinks a 'stranger' is someone scary and ugly who they don't know." To a child who may have swapped photos with someone online and spent hours "getting to know" him or her — that person is no longer a "stranger."
"It is important for parents and guardians to be aware of the dangers children may face online," said Christine Loftus with the NetSmartz Workshop, a free online interactive workshop for youth about Internet safety. "These dangers include exposure to inappropriate material, sexual solicitation, harassment, and bullying."
Cyber-bullying can make your child feel miserable and involves children spreading online rumors or gossip about each other. Unlike online solicitation of children where the aggressor seeks to lure the child into inappropriate sexual behavior, cyber-bullying attacks a child directly and can be as emotionally destructive as face-to-face teasing and physical intimidation.
To jolt parents and guardians into action, NCMEC created the "Help Delete Online Predators" campaign in 2004 with the Ad Council, which sent public service ads to more than 28,000 media outlets. A second wave of ads were issued in 2005 targeting teen girls and urging them to hear the message about online predators, "Don't Believe the Type."