Advice on protecting kids from online predators

Computerworld talks to Gregory Smith, CIO at the World Wildlife Fund and author of 'How to Protect Your Children on the Internet'

The numbers are downright frightening: One in five U.S. teenagers who regularly log onto the Internet say they have received unwanted sexual solicitations via the Web, according to the U.S. Crimes Against Children Research Center. And, the center says, 25 percent of children have been exposed to pornographic material online.

But a big part of the problem is that parents often don't take adequate measures to protect their children online, argues Gregory Smith, CIO at the World Wildlife Fund and author of the recently published book How to Protect Your Children on the Internet: A Road Map for Parents and Teachers (Praeger Publishers). Smith, who is also an adjunct professor at the School of Professional Studies in Business and Education Graduate Programs at The Johns Hopkins University, spoke with Computerworld about steps that parents and teachers can and should be taking to protect children online. He also discussed how IT professionals can play a more active role.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was home one night watching Dateline with my wife about two years ago, and there was a special on Internet chat rooms. They'd set up a sting operation, posing as teenage girls in chat rooms. What was amazing was just how fast these investigators were contacted by sexual predators. These predators, one after another, showed up at this sting house, planning to have sex with this teenage girl, and instead met with a sheriff. The variety of people, from high school coaches to businessmen, all had the same focus: to engage in some type of sexual activity with a minor.

It got me to thinking, "Is this really what's happening with sexual predators and kids on the Internet?" I did a little research on this and was surprised to find there were few books published on the topic. One book was about MySpace, one was from a legal perspective [and was] written by a detective -- but there was nothing written specifically to give parents a clear, straightforward road map. So I sat down for four hours that night and wrote an 11-page proposal. I was up until 2:30 a.m.; I was pretty passionate about this topic. I got an e-mail two or three months later on my birthday from a publisher, and they were interested in the proposal and wanted to take on the project.

How old are your own kids and have either of them had any online experiences that have been disconcerting to you as a parent?

My children are 11 and 13. One or two. The way I run my house, and what I describe in Chapter Three [of the book], is that privacy advocates can kiss my butt. I don't need anybody's permission to do what I think I need to to keep my kids safe on the Internet or elsewhere. A lot of the policies I have in the book are drawn from conversations I've had with my children as to why they're not going to have an e-mail account at an elementary school age and why they won't have instant messaging accounts at a middle school or high school age.

One of my kids showed me a soft-porn site showing naked teenage girls. They were searching for teenage-related sites on a search engine, and they came up with that.

What are the biggest mistakes that parents make in terms of protecting their kids online?

They think that putting the computer in a centralized location in the family room is a safe way to guard their kids on the Internet. If a parent is asleep or out of the room, it doesn't take but 30 seconds for kids to access inappropriate material on the Internet. Kids are also using keystroke clickers to quickly change from one screen to another. It takes one keystroke to go to an Excel spreadsheet to make it look like they're doing their homework, and [another to] quickly go to another screen when their parents aren't looking.

No. 2 is using Internet content filters. The free ones are ineffective. And some parents will download a content filter on Internet Explorer, and the kids will bypass them by downloading Netscape or Mozilla.

The other risk that's very common is that parents are bombarded with requests from their children to have technologies that their friends are using. Kids will say, "My friends are using IM. My friends are using social networks. Why can't I?" After multiple barrages of requests, they give in. Parents need to hold the line on what is an acceptable request.

Text messaging with mobile phones is extremely popular among adolescents and teens. What are some of the risks and safeguards that parents should be aware of? Some of the safeguards are that they need to be looking potentially at conversations that children are having via text. Children are able to go back and delete [text] files. Some cell phone providers won't provide an audit trail. The risks are clear: children could be having conversations with people they think they know but are strangers. Or having inappropriate conversations with people at school that are against school rules.

Some of the things parents can do is have a better handle on conversations kids are having. Ask to see their phones from time to time, and view text messages and who they're calling.

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Thomas Hoffman

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