By Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 8/21/2006 1:00:58 PM ET 2006-08-21T17:00:58
COMMENTARY

In the past months, the media has devoted much attention to protecting children from predators-online and otherwise.  The arrest in the JonBenet Ramsey case is the latest news peg, the current event that gets us into discussions about the dangers child predators pose.

I’ve been researching online safety for segments on “The Most,” and I stumbled across a poll from an organization called Netsmartz.org.  Despite all of the (at times exhaustive) coverage of these stories, 70 percent of children surveyed indicated that their parents have not had a conversation with them about online safety.

Judging by the ratings news channels get when covering such sordid tales, parents are certainly watching the programs.  They just aren’t taking action.  It’s time to do something about that.

First, it’s important that parents understand how predators and pedophiles use the Internet.  The New York Times just ran a two part series on the issue.  I consider myself to be a very Web-savvy individual, but I learned a thing or two.

For example, not only is there a kiddy porn business online, but many pedophiles trade in photos of scantily clad, but not nude, children.  In many cases these photos are perfectly legal, although perfectly revolting.

There are organized communities for pedophiles online.  Chat rooms exist where these men and women (although mostly men) discuss experiences they have had with kids, and even give each other tips on finding new victims.

I was shocked to learn that there are online radio sites and podcasts for this community, discussing legal issues and providing guidance for adults seeking sex with children.  The Times published the names of some of the sites.  I refuse to; it is enough to know they are out there.  I will not direct traffic to these dangerous corners of the Internet.

There was a time early on in the “My Space” craze that I felt the stories about online dangers were overblown,  sensationalized by cable news to grab ratings.  The Netsmartz poll changed my attitude.  I was stunned to learn that 71 percent of children have been contacted by strangers online.  More alarming, 30 percent of them say they have actually considered meeting the stranger in the real world.

If you are a parent of a Web-savvy kid, and they are all Web-savvy kids, there are a few things you need to tell them today.

Be anonymous
Children should not use real names online.  Use pseudonyms or screen names only, and never reveal your address or phone number in any chat room or social networking site.  It is far too dangerous.

Don’t talk to strangers!
You have taught them this since they were old enough to walk.  Many children know not to get into a stranger’s car or accept candy from strangers on the street.

Do they know that the same rule applies online?

Think before posting photos
Too many people -- children and adults -- treat My Space pages or personal blogs like a scrapbook.  It’s a place to put all the funny pictures from vacation or the last big birthday party.

This is not advisable, because the Web site is in the public domain.  Anybody can look at those photos of children in swimsuits, underwear, or in the bath. 

Don’t do it.

Be honest about your age

When you’re 13, you can’t wait to be 16 or 18.  That is perfectly normal kid stuff.  But going online and lying about your age can be dangerous.

Your child should be in chat spaces or on sites that are age appropriate, and should not pretend to be older to talk to older kids and adults.

I can predict the responses this column will elicit.

“This is great, but I can’t be there around the clock making sure my preteen is on the right Websites.”

Of course that’s true.  The talk is still necessary and in many cases can make a big difference.

For extra assurance, there is software you can buy that allows you to track your child’s online behavior.  You can also insist on knowing their passwords and screen names.

After all, you pay the bills.

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