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Discussion: Keeping Children Safe Online

posted on May 14, 2007 at 4:21 PM

Child predators have probably been around since the beginning of time, but during the past decade, they've evolved new ways to bait and catch their prey.

With us here tonight to discuss what we can do to keep our children safe is Susan K. Tesdahl. She is the director of St. Luke's child protection center in Cedar Rapids. And also with us tonight is Sean Berry, Assistant United States Attorney, Northern District, also from Cedar Rapids.

Mundt: Now that we know that online predators are looking for that meeting, what can parents do to protect their kids, Sean?

Berry: Well, parents have to monitor what their kids are doing on the Internet. They have to limit the time that the kids are on the Internet. If your child is spending four to six hours a day on the computer, you need to be knowing why. The computer should not be in their room. An Internet connected computer should be in the more public part of the house, the family room or the kitchen, and parents need to talk to their kids about what they're doing on the Internet and about the dangers that are on the Internet. And that can be a difficult conversation to have, but it's one that you've got to have.

Mundt: Do you recommend tools that allow parents to see what their children are looking at, like the search histories that Google and other services provide?

Berry: Absolutely. I mean that's being a good parent, not being a spy. You want to know what your children are doing, particularly at the middle school age where they are so susceptible to attention from an adult. That's something a parent should definitely be doing. And if they don't know how, it's pretty easy to find out. There are classes at the local library. Ask a friend or coworker, or a presentation at a PTA. Somehow parents can find out enough to be able to look to see what their kids are doing.

Mundt: Sue, what about the warning signs for parents? What do you think are the most important ones?

Tesdahl: Well, there are a number of them. As Sean has already talked about, if the child is spending lots and lots of time on the computer, two or three hours a day. Another is if the child automatically shuts down the screen when a parent walks by, if they start acting very secretive, if they start getting mail or getting phone calls, that type of thing. Sometimes these children will receive gifts through the mail from the predators, things like memory cards, things like cell phones, this type of thing. So always, again, it's just being vigilant about what your children are doing. The other thing is that parents need to be -- when Sean was just talking about your own home, this age of middle school is a big one for going to other kids' houses, spending the night, et cetera. So you need to get to know the parents of your children's friends and know what the computer rules are at their house because, even if you restrict your child, they could go over to a friend's house, spend the night, and be in a bedroom where there's a computer and hook onto the Internet for hours and hours.

Mundt: Sean, personal information, we heard in that clip just a few minutes ago, I think name, address, and phone number, if I remember correctly. Is that the information you should be saying to your children "don't provide that online"? Is there additional?

Berry: Oh, sure. Don't where a t-shirt with your school name. Use common sense and understand whatever information that you put on the Internet a predator could use to try and find you. A child needs to understand that, and a parent needs to understand that. If a child has a Facebook page or a MySpace page, the parent needs to look at it and fairly often, because they change, and to use their judgment -- the parents' judgment as to what belongs on Facebook because kids make bad decisions. That's what kids do and parents need to help them make good decisions, particularly with regard to things like Facebook and MySpace.

Mundt: See, this brings up an interesting point. A parent said to me, "I've always left my child's MySpace profile alone. I felt that was his space in which to act, and I figured he was acting safely." if we do want to be careful about this issue of the kinds of information that our kids may be giving out without knowing -- understanding the ramifications of it, is there a way to nicely broach that subject with your child to get yourself invited into their world so that you're a participant with them maybe in enjoying what their space has to offer and you can also see what they have?

Tesdahl: In most cases parents are not as knowledgeable about their kids about the Internet. And so I would suggest that the parent invite the child to teach them how to go onto the Internet and find out information. That's time spent together on the Internet, and it's a good lead-in to these kinds of conversations. And in a way it empowers the child, because as children, we don't very often get opportunities to teach our parents something.

Mundt: Maybe this is a very simple answer. This statistic that 70 to 75 percent of the victims are young women and a much smaller percentage, of course, then, would be boys. Why would be the reason for that?

Tesdahl: Well, that 70 to 75 percent is fairly stable across the nation for victims of child sexual abuse. We have always wondered about that statistic, and our feeling is, is that while girls are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, it's also more likely that boys don't tell like girls do.

Mundt: They're going through the same issues of vulnerability and that psychology of the victim that we talked about a little bit earlier.

Tesdahl: And I think also that parents tend to be more protective of their daughters than they are of their sons, so that a mother like Carli's might not search her son's computer as readily as she would her daughter's.

Mundt: What's the support structure that exists for victims and their families once this has been identified?

Tesdahl: They're at every community, and, again depending on its size, but certainly every region of Iowa has all kinds of resources. There are -- from the legal standpoint, there's resources like Sean's office, the U.S. Attorney's office, your local law enforcement agencies, counseling agencies. One of the problems with online predators is that it strikes the whole family, not just the child. As you heard from this mother earlier, she will always now be ultravigilant as to what her daughter is doing and be fearful of now, you know: Who did -- who else did this person tell about Carli; is their family vulnerable to other people? So any kinds of counseling agencies, our education -- area education agencies have a lot of information about this topic, and there are many places that they can go to help.

Mundt: We're running out of time here, but I wanted to get one thought from each of you: The most important thing that you think parents should be aware of when we talk about this issue. Sean, first to you.

Berry: Well, the worldwide web is a big world, and too often parents are letting their kids travel alone. Parents need to be vigilant in understanding what their kids are doing on the Internet and protecting them.

Mundt: Sue?

Tesdahl: I would say the one comment that was made tonight that's the most important is the one that came from Sean: Get the computers in a well-trafficked area of the home and out of the children's bedrooms.

Mundt: The computer is out in front. The computer is a shared experience. The computer becomes then a social rather than a private experience.

Tags: child predators Facebook Internet Iowa online social media teens


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