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Paynesville Press - April 13, 2005

Class teaches parents, kids about Internet safety

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Internet chatrooms are among the most dangerous areas for kids to visit online because people who prey on children use these services to meet their victims, said Sergeant Chris Dobratz, of the Hutchinson Police Department during an Internet safety class last week.

Parents and teachers who wanted to learn how to keep youngsters safe on the Internet and kids who wanted to learn how to protect themselves gathered for the class, which was sponsored by Lakedale Communications and hosted by Community Education.

Some predators go to great lengths to lure potential victims, Dobratz told the audience of 20 people in the school auditorium on Tuesday, April 5. Predators learn current trends in music, clothing, fads, and even speech so they can pose as children or teens in order to lure kids into trusting them, he added. Children who are lonely or have poor relationships with their parents are most at risk, Dobratz reported.

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.

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. In addition, approximately 60 to 70 percent of all Internet use is for the viewing of pornography, including child pornography, often on hidden sites that can only be accessed by invitation, added Dobratz.

Since the Internet has no boundaries, children in small towns and rural areas like Paynesville are just as much at risk as children in large cities, according to Dobratz.

In spite of the dangers, the Internet can be a valuable tool for kids who know how to use it responsibly. While online dangers for children may never be eliminated, steps can be taken to help reduce the risk, and education is the key, said Dobratz, a member of the Minnesota Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force who has given Internet safety classes in a number of Minnesota cities. Children and parents alike need to learn about online dangers and know how to stay safe, he said.

Usually, children make their first mistake by registering for e-mail accounts on sites such as Hotmail or Yahoo! Mistakes are also made when kids prepare to enter chatrooms or instant message forums for the first time, said Dobratz. Often these services ask for personal information when registering, he said, and kids think this information is required, but it's not. Kids should never share personal information on the Internet, even with account providers.

Also, children and teens should never post information about their schools, sports teams, or specific information about clubs or organizations, and children should never post their photos on the Internet, even on personal web pages. A girl could withhold her real name in a chat, but revealing that she is a redhead cheerleader for a particular high school may provide a potential predator with all the information he needs to locate her, according to Dobratz. Posting a photo would only make it easier for the girl to be located.

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, said Dobratz. 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, he said. Also, parents shouldn't be shy about checking their children's accounts, or looking at the history of sites visited, Dobratz said.

Often kids using instant message services or talking in chatrooms shorthand to communicate with their peers. For instance, "P911" means a parent has just walked into the room, "Mos" means mother over my shoulder, and "PRW" means parents are watching. If a parent sees a child type messages like these during a chat, he should ask the child what is so secret that a parent shouldn't see. Also, parents should be concerned if a child closes a chat or clicks to another screen as soon as another person enters the room, Dobratz said.

Children or teens should never meet people they've met online without permission from parents, added Dobratz.

Parents and other adults can take other steps to help keep children safe on the Internet, said Dobratz. Blocking software can be very effective in keeping children out of dangerous areas of the Internet, said Dobratz. Of course, sometimes children can be very computer savvy and can find ways to get around the software, he added, so parents need to be diligent about keeping software current and changing passwords whenever necessary.

If a child is solicited online or encounters anything that makes him or her uncomfortable, a parent should be told right away.

Parents who believe their children may be targeted by an online predator should get as much information about the person as possible including web addresses and screen names, according to Dobratz. Parents can also take the computer to the local police, who should know how to find information that could help lead to identifying a possible predator.

More tips for keeping kids safe can be found on the Internet, said Dobratz. The National Center for Missing or Exploited Kids at offers tips and a Cyber Tipline to report the sexual exploitation of children. Another site,, offers tips, interactive activities for kids, parents and educators, and online safety contracts geared to different age groups.

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