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Paynesville Press - March 23, 2005

Internet safety class to be offered for parents and kids

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

The Internet can be a valuable tool for youngsters seeking information or keeping in touch with their friends and families, but it can also expose children and teens to danger.

The Internet can be used to meet and engage children in chatrooms, and online predators can use the Internet to lure children, according to Derek Groth, public relations supervisor at Lakedale Communi-cations, the local telephone and an Internet provider.

Because online safety has become a concern for Internet providers as well as parents and children, Lakedale Communications will sponsor an Internet safety class at the school auditorium on Tuesday, April 5, at 7 p.m. To register for the free class, call Community Education at 320-243-7570 by Thursday, March 31.

Parents are encouraged to attend with their children to learn what dangers exist online; how to tell who's on the other end of a chatline; how online peredators operate; and what measures can be taken to ensure the safety of children who use the Internet.

Sergeant Chris Dobratz - of the Hutchinson Police Department, also a member of the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force - will teach the class.

According to Dobratz, Internet chatlines offer an ideal way for pedophiles to meet victims. Often adults pose as children or teens and engage in on-going communication with their victims to gain trust.

In some cases, contact may never go beyond the chatroom, but sometimes an adult will attempt to contact the victim by phone, will send gifts, and can eventually persuade the victim to meet in person. Online pedophiles may send their victims airline or bus tickets to arrange a face-to-face meeting, according to Dobratz.

Many individuals who victimize children online are willing to spend a lot of time gaining their victim's trust, according to an FBI Internet safety publication. They listen to their victims and empathize with their problems. They learn about the latest music and trends and gradually lessen children's inhibitions by slowly introducing sex to the conversation, according to the FBI. Parents and children need to remember that the person on the other side of a computer chat can be any age or sex.

All children who use the Internet are at risk of becoming victims, said Dobratz. Just because the child lives in a relatively crime-free area is not protection against online crimes because the Internet has no boundaries, he said.

According to a nationwide study of 1,500 youth between 10 and 17, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, almost one in five of Internet users had received an unwanted sexual solicitation in the past year. Three percent of the youth surveyed had received an aggressive solicitation for off-line contact.

According Dobratz, the problem is growing. The Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force investigates more cases of child exploitation, more attempts at contact, and more child pornography cases every year. The number is increasing because more kids are on the Internet, and pedophiles are getting braver, said Dobratz. In some cases, pedophiles who would otherwise never act on their impulses will contact children online because of the promise of anonymity, he said.

While the risk for children online may never be eliminated, steps can be taken to help reduce the risk, and education is the key, said Dobratz, who has given Internet safety classes in a number of Minnesota cities.

Dobratz and Groth offered the following tips for protecting children on the Internet:

*Communication between parents and children is important, and rules should be established regarding when a child can be online and which sites are appropriate to visit.

*Parents should know what their children are doing online. Children's computers should always be in a public area (i.e. living room, dining room, etc.), never in the a bedroom, so parents can monitor online usage.

*Children should never give out personal information such as addresses, phone numbers, information about parents, or school information without a parent's permission. Remember, said Dobratz, that a person who claims to be a 14-year-old girl online may actually be a 50-year-old man.

*Use blocking software or parental controls, included in most computer packages, to keep children from sexually explicit sites.

*Children should tell parents right away if they come across something that makes them uncomfortable.

*Children should never upload or post their photos on an Internet site.

*Children should never agree to get together with someone they met online without first checking with parents. If parents agree to a meeting, it should be in a public place with parental supervision.

*Children should never give their Internet passwords to anyone (even a best friend) besides their parents.

In addition, the FBI offers danger signs to parents, including: a child spending a lot of time online, especially at night; finding pornography on a child's computer; a child receiving calls from strangers or making suspicious long-distance calls; a child receiving mail, gifts, or packages from someone the parent doesn't know; and a child turning off the computer quickly or closing a screen when a parent walks into the room.

According to the FBI, parents should also review the contents of their child's computer - ask a friend, relative, or service provider for help, if needed - and monitor all of a child's electronic communications.

And the FBI advises parents to contact the police if a child has been sexually solicited by someone who knows the child is under 18 or if a child receives any sexually explicit material online, especially child pornography.

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