Though computer technology and the internet have given today's youth a range of educational and social advantages over their parents' generation, access to the World Wide Web comes with a host of issues from exposure to child predators and chances for stolen identity to run-ins with cyber bullies.
"We teach our kids to look both ways before crossing the street and we tell them not to talk to strangers," says High-Tech Crimes Task Force Commander Josh Moulin, of the Central Point Police Department "But most parents have no idea what their kids are doing online."
For kids and teens old enough to venture online without parental assistance, ground rules should be established and Internet activity monitored. Statistics and news reports show an alarming number of kids and teens being victimized by individuals met online. No amount of parental involvement is too much when it comes to keeping kids safe.
Local high tech crime gurus offer the following advice:
Keep kids' site marked private and require that parents have log in information. Do occasional checks to make sure kids haven't created an alternate account and have stiff penalties (such as losing both sites) for rules being broken.
Encourage kids to report any inappropriate contact. Consider taking an Internet safety course with kids and other parents and have kids sign an "Internet safety contract."
Parental permission should be required before "adding" new friends to a site - and "friends" should be someone the child has formally met.
Remind kids not to engage in cyber bullying or saying things online they wouldn't say in person.
Consider installing "net nanny" style software to limit sites on which kids and teens can visit and to record web activity.
Finally, local law enforcement officers, from school resource officers and tech gurus at the High Tech Crimes Task Force have created an online presence. Sometimes, having a police officer, parent or Internet safety advocate listed high on their buddy list can deter a potential predator.
According to law enforcement statistics, one in seven children in the United States receives a sexual solicitation or approach while online. One in 33 receives an aggressive sexual solicitation, defined by an invitation to physically meet, accept a phone call or have something sent by mail.
While stranger danger is instilled from an early age, online identities provide a false sense of security. News stories abound of children gone missing, underage girls lured by an older man met online or cyber bullies pushing kids to make life-altering decisions.
Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook are rife with surveys, questionnaires and photos that display more personal information than most kids would give in person. Sadly, social networking sites popular with today's youth are a virtual candy store for predators.
First and foremost, parents are key in establishing ground rules with kids about Internet safety. Vicki Kelly from Phoenix founded the Tommy Foundation in 1999 to advocate for missing children after the disappearance of her son, whose remains were later found. She says the biggest mistake parents make is allowing privacy during online access.
"Computers should be in the living room or a common place, not ever in the bedroom," Kelly says. "Predators are basically now coming into our children's living rooms and bedrooms through the Internet and parents are barely paying attention."
For parents, becoming savvier about the technology their kids are using is a good idea, Moulin says, "that way, if a child wants to talk to their parents about something that did happen on line, there's a dialogue."
"When we talk to kids who have had problems online, we ask, 'How come you don't go to your parents when something bad happens on the Internet?'" says Moulin. "There are usually two reasons. They're afraid their computer will be taken away and, second, they think their parents won't understand, so why bother telling them."
Moulin is quick to point out that a recent search on MySpace produced a list of some 29,000 registered sex offenders with MySpace pages, "and those are just the ones we could find based on them using their real names."
For social networking sites, parents should be sure kids follow site rules on age requirements, keep their sites private — visible only to friends and family — and get parental permission before adding any new "friends" to their site.
"Sometimes it's kind of a popularity contest to see how many friends they can have, so they'll add just about anyone," notes Moulin.
Even on pages marked private, Kelly says parents should prohibit kids from relaying too much personal information. Often overlooked, photos can show house numbers, cars with license plate information and name tags with last names.
Books on a shelf in certain photos might give predators an "in" with kids to talk about favorite subjects or school uniforms might clue possible predators on where to find a child after school.
"In five minutes time, it's amazing the amount of information a child predator can gain by just talking to a child," says Kelly.
Social networking aside, online diaries, blogs and video collections should be avoided or kept exclusively private and chat rooms are generally not a good idea for minors.
Perhaps above all else, involvement from parents is the best way to ensure kids are practicing safe habits online.
"Most kids just don't fully realize how many people are online and how dangerous it can be to post personal information," says Moulin. "But predators most often take the path of least resistance, so it's important for parents to stay involved."