Computers and your kids -- What you should know

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

With over 240 million computer users in the United States, access to the World Wide Web has changed how we get information. A keyboard and an Internet Service Provider (ISP) offer a gateway to websites where kids can play online games, chat with their friends, send and receive email and conduct research for school homework and projects.

While most school-age children have grown up with technology, they may not be aware of the dangers lurking in the anonymity of the Internet. You may not be either.

Because technology is so pervasive and children are so adept with it, adults may forget children don't know everything about it. And since they are children they may not be able to handle every situation, or every user, they encounter in cyberspace.

Teens and younger kids are accessing websites, social networks, gaming sites, discussion boards, chat rooms and instant messaging on a daily basis. So are online predators--people who are trying to communicate, meet or collect information on young users. They also can be at any of the same interactive sites that children use.

Who are these online predators? According to the U.S. Department of Justice, whether the victimization occurs in person or over the Internet, the process is the same--the perpetrator uses information to target a child victim. The predator may initiate an online friendship with a young person by sharing hobbies and interests, which could lead to an exchange of pictures and possibly gifts. Predators use gifts like webcams to further the relationship and build the child's trust.

"Online predators typically look for children who are impressionable," said Chief Deputy Steve Martin with the Franklin County Sheriff's Office. "They look for children who feel alone, have minimal contact with peers and those from single family homes."

Some children and teens now spend hours gaming online. Besides the obvious health risk factors from not getting enough exercise, predators have been known to use gaming sites as an avenue to seek out and exploit children, explained Martin. "Some of these games allow users to communicate with one another via chat or audio conferencing.

"Most parents would be surprised to know that most children do not report solicitations and being sent inappropriate material via the Internet," said Martin. "This comes from lack of communication between parents and children. When these things go unreported, even if the child ceases contact with the suspect, it leaves the suspect out there undetected and allows him or her to seek out other victims."

The 2006 report, Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later (Wolak, Mitchell and Finkelhor of the Crimes Against Children Research Center for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children), reported that more than one-third of youth (34 percent) participating in the study had unwelcome encounters with sexual material and 26 percent of exposures left youth feeling very or extremely upset. While 76 percent of youth with distressing exposures were teenagers, 24 percent were ages 10, 11, and 12.

  • Where the computer is located can be as important as the information that children are allowed to access. Keep the computer in a common area, like the family room, rather than a child's bedroom, where you can watch and monitor its use. You can also set parameters for its use, such as time limits and approved sites.
  • Become Internet savvy. If you aren't comfortable with computers, take a class at a local library or an adult learning class at your local college. If you know how to navigate the Web, take a look at some online classes about Internet basics, like Learn the Net--The Internet Users Manual ( You also might consider Internet monitoring software, sometimes referred to as parental control software. These products can control content and programs, block instant messaging, monitor social networking sites, control the amount of time allowed online and when it's available, log usage and create usage alerts. Activity reports are usually available.
  • Involve yourself in your child's Internet activity. "If a parent chooses to allow their child to chat, assist the child in choosing an appropriate screen name," said Martin. "NEVER allow the child to select a screen name with sexual overtones. Also, make sure the child does not include any part of their real name in their screen name or profile. A big mistake made by children is listing personal, identifiable information in their online screen names and profiles."

"The biggest suggestion for parents to make sure their children are safe on the Internet is to talk with them," said Martin. "Parents need to educate themselves and their children about the Web. Being open with children about the dangers, and putting a plan in place for what a child should do should they receive any inappropriate material or contact from a stranger--much like a stranger approaching them on the streets--will go a long way."

Logged On and Tuned Out, a Non-Techie's Guide to Parenting a Tech-Savvy Generation, by Vicki Courtney.

In simple language, moms and dads overwhelmed by today's digital world will learn the basics and checkpoints of instant messaging, text messaging, social networking websites, chat rooms, and photo and video uploading. This book even has its own related website where parents can download online safety contracts, get updated information about safety filters, and more. For more information, go to

Generation Text, Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything, by Dr. Michael Osit.

In this culture of instant gratification and overwhelming excess, parenting has become a bigger challenge than ever. This book examines how children's identities are shaped by the world around them-and how, with an absence of meaningful barriers between impulse and the ability to act on them, parents can help children learn to make intelligent choices and manage the potential overload successfully.

Grand Theft Childhood, the Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do, by Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D. and Cheryl K. Olson, Sc.D.

What should we as parents be concerned about? Video games don't affect all children in the same way; some children are at significantly greater risk. You may be surprised to learn which ones! This book gives parents practical, research-based advice on ways to limit many of those risks. Cut through the myths and hysteria and reveal the surprising truth about kids and video games.