How to Stay Safe in Cyberspace

How to Stay Safe in Cyberspace

By former Sheriff Ken Roland
He says his name is "Scott"; it's not. He says he's new to the town; he's not. He says he's 19 years old, not even close. But that's how online predators portray themselves to kids, befriending them online on the social network, Facebook.

Recently the Miami County Sheriff's Department took part along with several other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in an undercover operation initiated by the U.S. Attorney for the North District of Indiana to snuff out online predators. In light of recent events, I felt it was my responsibility as sheriff to inform parents about the dangers of online socializing, and offer tips to protect children from being victimized by Internet pedophiles.

Social Media Draws

When Facebook was launched in 2004, it functioned mostly as a way for college students to keep in touch. Not surprisingly, Facebook caught on like wildfire with kids. At its best, Facebook is a place where users keep in touch with friends and express their creativity by designing personalized profiles. It has almost replaced the telephone for after-school gossiping. Around 61% of 13-17 year olds have a personal profile on a site such as Facebook. Half have also posted pictures of themselves online.

Social Media Dangers

But Facebook has a hidden danger. Predators troll the site, and others like it, looking for vulnerable young teens. This website is a sexual predator's dream and a parent's worst nightmare. According to John Shehan, who heads up the Center for Missing and Exploited Children Cyber Tip Line, since the program's inception in 1998, they've received over 350,000 reports regarding some sort of child sexual exploitation.

Fast Facts

In a recent teen survey, 71% reported receiving messages online from someone they didn't know:
  • 45% had been asked for personal information by someone they didn't know
  • 30% had considered meeting someone that they had only talked to online
  • 14% percent actually met a person face-to-face that they had only spoke to over the Internet
    • 9% of 13- to 15-year olds
    • 22% of 16- to 17-year olds
When teens receive messages from someone they don't know, 40% reported that they'll usually reply and chat with that person. Only 18% tell an adult.

What You Can Do

The cyberworld is attractive to predators for several reasons. For one, it's an entirely different world where anyone can be anybody. They can pose as a friend, a nemesis; they can be anyone they want, and a lot of times the predator is just looking for a child that needs attention. They are quickly there to initiate that conversation and to be a best friend. Within that anonymous world, the vulnerable are the easiest targets. There are several things that can be done by parents to keep their kids safe:
  1. Prepare your children for the online world just as you would for the real world:
    1. Establish guidelines and rules.
    2. Know who communicates with your children.
  2. Learn about the Internet:
    1. Familiarize yourself with the programs your children are using.
    2. Consider using Internet filters or blocks.
  3. Place the family's computer in a common room where supervision and guidelines are
  4. Limiting your children's computer time is not enough to safeguard them on the Internet:
    1. Talking about the benefits and dangers on the Internet and making sure your children are making smart decisions while online is also important.
    2. Children should be educated on Internet safety as soon as they start using a computer. Parents should not wait until middle school or high school to talk about Internet safety because teens may have already developed bad Internet habits.
    3. Explain to your children that Instant Messenger (IM) is only for chatting with school and family friends who they by face and are approved by you.
    4. Make sure they can put a face to every screen name on their IM "buddy list."
  5. 65% of incidents happen in chat rooms:
    1. Reinforce that people are not always who they say they are when online.
    2. Make sure your children know how dangerous it is to give out personal information such as their name, mailing address or email address.
    3. Stress the fact that it is not safe to get together with someone they first "meet" online.
As your children interact on the Internet, you need to be aware that they may be exposed to people who don't have their best interests in mind. If your children ever tell you that someone has asked them to meet offline, find out as much as you can about the situation. Save any communication to your computer; if there is illegal activity, a record of the conversation can be powerful evidence in court. Report any of these types of information to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipLine, and contact any Miami County law enforcement agency if you suspect your child is in immediate danger.

Be sure to check out the department's Facebook account.