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Caution urged for kids on Net

December 30, 1999|By SCOTT BUTKI

As the number of children using the Internet increases, so does the risk of them being victimized by sexual predators, an author of a book on the subject said Thursday.

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That risk can be reduced by taking precautions, such as making sure youngsters know not to give out personal information, said Debbie Mahoney, author of "Innocence Lost: Protecting Your Child From the Trauma of Abuse."

"We can be careful but not fearful," said Mahoney, the founder of Safeguarding Our Children-United Mothers, a Tracey, Calif.-based group that provides information on how to avoid sexual predators on the Internet.

Former Hagerstown City Council member Steven Kenneth Spalding, 45, was charged Wednesday with 38 criminal offenses, including second-degree rape, child pornography and other sex offenses.

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Spalding was released from custody Wednesday afternoon after posting a $75,000 property bond. He is charged with having a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old Washington County girl he met on the Internet when she was 11.

According to court records, the girl told police that when they first began chatting on the Internet, she believed Spalding was about 13 years old.

It is not unusual for people to lie about their ages online, said Mahoney and Jean Polly of Jamesville, N.Y., author of "The Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages."

"The Internet has given predators unprecedented access to our kids," said Polly, who is known on the Internet and in the publishing world as Net-mom.

That is especially true since information about strangers, including ages, can't easily be verified, Mahoney said.

Polly and Mahoney said the answer isn't for parents to prohibit their children from using computers or the Internet at home.

Turning off the computer is not a solution because doing so "only restricts the parent's ability to find out what's going on with this child," Mahoney said.

The child would simply use the Internet at a friend's house or the library, she said.

While some feel that chat rooms have a bad reputation, they can be useful, Polly said. For instance, children can use chat rooms and instant messaging software to hold conversations with friends, relatives and celebrities, she said.

She suggests parents go to the Web sites www.getnetwise.org, www.headbone.com and www.freezone.com, for information on chat rooms that are monitored and about software that can filter out what children see and receive on the Internet.

Even that is not the total answer, Mahoney said.

"It doesn't take the place of parental monitoring," she said.

Parents should never put a computer with Internet access in a child's room because it makes it more difficult to know what the child is seeing, Mahoney advised.

Polly and Mahoney said it is essential for parents to talk to their children about their Internet use and what will happen if they violate a parent's instructions.

"You must express your values to your kids. Tell them what your expectations are," Polly said.

"Try to know your kids' online friends, like you get to know their real friends," she said.

"We put restrictions on them going into a movie theater based on their age. As parents, we need to put restrictions and time limits on where they go," Mahoney said.

One of the most important conversations parents should have with their children is about the importance of privacy, both women said. Sometimes children don't understand privacy because they don't really have any, Polly said.

They need to know that they should not answer questions from strangers about themselves, no matter how minor the detail, she said.

"Just because someone asks the question, doesn't mean you have to answer it," she suggests children should be told.

Parents should monitor not just their children's online activities but all aspects of their lives to some extent, Polly said. Talk to them and see how they are feeling and doing, she advised.

As weird as it may seem, it's not unheard of for parents to communicate with their children by electronic mail, she said.




Safeguarding Our Children-United Mothers can be found on the Web at www.soc-um.org.

Polly's Web site is at www.netmom.com.

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