Parenting has always been a difficult job. An online world -- with the threats of pedophiles and stalkers going along with children and teens, who are still developing a sense of freedom and privacy -- makes the task even more daunting.
But experts say there are simple steps parents can take to help ensure their child's safety without limiting their options. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it is as simple as paying attention to what your kids are doing.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it is as simple as paying attention to what your kids are doing.
Special Agent Mike Miller, of the cyber crimes division, said allowing teenagers unrestricted online access or access in private locations, such as a bedroom, are big danger signs. He said a lack of supervision in the child's involvement online is the first step toward putting him or her at risk.
Too many parents believe they can download or install a program to protect their child from predators. These programs try to filter or block out dangerous or inappropriate Web sites."(Protection programs) are not foolproof, nor are they the answer," Miller said. "But they are probably better than nothing."
Miller has worked in the Innocent Images program of the FBI since 2000. The initiative teams FBI agents and local police in task forces. They work undercover online to investigate those who prey on children. He said law enforcement is putting more focus on crimes against children, but the situation has not improved.
"Kids are looking for companionship. The Internet provides that," Miller said. "(Teens) are more sophisticated with the Web. They are very comfortable with it."
Miller speaks at school meetings to parents about the danger to look for and what to do. He said at a recent meeting at a school with 800 students, fewer than 100 parents showed up.
"Part of it is apathy, but a lot of it is lack of time to find out the right information," Miller said. "We are finding a lot of cases where children in single-parent homes are vulnerable because the single parent is working, and the computer becomes the baby sitter."
He said some parents refuse to believe their child may be in danger until it is too late.
"They will say, 'I never thought my child would do this,' when they discover that their child has contacted an online predator," he said.
While chat rooms and online profile services such as Facebook and MySpace are often the places where children are solicited, Miller said the larger services have really cracked down on those who would prey on teens.
It's still up to caregivers to teach the dos and don'ts, and it's a young person's responsibility to be careful.
"Parents should check out their child's online profile," he said. "Often, the child will put up too much personalized information in their profile. It is an easy way for someone to get their hands on that info."
Here are danger signs that parents should look for to see if their child may be at risk online:
Kids spending large amounts of time online, especially at night
Finding pornography on your child's computer
Children receiving phone calls from men you don't know, or children making calls to numbers you don't recognize
Children receiving mail, gifts or packages from someone you don't know
Kids turning the computer monitor off or quickly changing screens when you come into the room
Young people becoming withdrawn from the family.
Children using an online account belonging to someone else.
Miller said there are Web sites to help parents get a handle on keeping their kids safe. He saidNetSmartz Workshop offers online contracts called safety pledges that parents can use to help educate their children about what is and is not acceptable behavior online.
The pledges change based on age group and what people in those ranges are likely to be doing online.
The site also offers tips to parents on what to look for, explanations of commonly used acronyms and who to contact if you think there is inappropriate contact online with your teen. The FBI and theNational Center for Missing and Exploited Children also offer good information for parents and teens alike on their sites.
Striking a balance between supervising your child's activities online and allowing them to develop their own sense of privacy is difficult. Miller admitted it is a tough place for parents to be these days.
However, communication and involvement are the key elements to let kids enjoy the Internet safely while still providing peace of mind for Mom and Dad.