published Hearst Newspapers 6/25/10
I turned in the revisions this week for my July 2011 novel, Want to Go Private?, about a high school freshman who becomes involved with an internet predator. I thought I was a reasonably tech savvy parent, but the research for this novel, which involved the FBI, an expert on pedophiles and a bedside table piled with what my daughter termed “seriously creepy books,” made me realize that as a plugged-in as I was, there was still much to learn.
With school either out or ending soon, many kids will be spending more time in front of a computer or video game screen.
A report released by Norton, Global Insights Into Family Life Online showed almost two thirds of children have had a negative experience while online. It’s not just the teenagers at risk, either. A 2008 Rochester Institute of Technology study found nearly half of first graders surveyed had visited sites that made them feel uncomfortable.
I recently took part in an online seminar given by the Florida Attorney General's Office and the FBI-SOS (Safe Online Surfing) program at Nova Southeastern University. They showed a real-life chat transcript in which a thirteen year-old boy was solicited for sexual acts in explicit language within four minutes of the chat being initiated. That’s how fast it can happen.
One disturbing finding of the Norton report was that only 45% of parents actually knew that their kids had negative experiences online. That’s why I’ve had monitoring software on both my kids’ laptops for the last four years. I installed it after a cyber-bullying incident when my daughter was in 5th grade. I didn’t find out about it until the situation had been ongoing for several weeks. Even though my daughter had been the victim initially, I withdrew her computer privileges for a lengthy period of time. Why? Because instead of coming to me when the problem happened, she chose to retaliate, which was not how I’d brought her up to behave.
But I never wanted to be blindsided like that again, so I called Greenwich Police Department and spoke to Detective Edward Zack, now retired, whom I’d met when I attended the Citizen’s Police Academy, and asked if he could give me advice about software I could put on my kids’ computers to help me monitor their web use. I’ve been using eBlaster by SpectorSoft (http://SpectorSoft.com), which is available for both PC and Mac. It e-mails me reports of every site my kids visit, and real-time chat logs. It has not only helped to catch potentially dangerous situations before they develop, but it has helped me be a proactive parent. I try to give my kids as much privacy as possible, and do generally not discuss with them things I see. But if a situation comes up that I think might lead to problems or I see one of them has visited a site that I think is inappropriate, I can have a conversation about it and talk about things that might be relevant to the situation, be it our family’s values or how what they put on the Internet is forever or how just because it’s the Internet it doesn’t mean you don’t have to behave with manners and respect towards others.
These days it’s not just computers parents have to worry about. Many kids have Internet on their cell phones, too – and they don’t even need a data plan to engage in “sexting,” for which presently they could be charged with felony child porn and be listed as a sex offender for life. However, Connecticut has introduced a bill making sexting between two consenting minors a Class A misdemeanor.
Then there are the live gaming systems like Xbox Live, Nintendo WiFi and Playstation Network. Wherever there are kids, predators will follow.
The bottom line: children need parenting online as much as they do offline, and we face the near impossible task of trying to keep up with our kids on the technology front so we can do it. But try we must, because our kids’ safety depends on it.