According to a report from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in five Internet users younger than 17 received an online sexual solicitation or approach during the past year. One in 33 received an aggressive sexual solicitation involving offline contact or a request for offline contact. What can you do to help keep kids safe online? Included: Printable Internet safety tips for parents and Internet safety rules for kids.
According to Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth, a recent study conducted for The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
What might those statistics mean in real numbers? Quite a lot-- almost 24 million youths between the ages of ten and 17 used the Internet regularly last year.
What are parents and teachers doing to protect children from the sexual materials, sexual solicitations, threats, and harassment they encounter online? Not enough, says FBI Special Agent Peter A. Gulotta Jr. "We do a rotten job of telling kids what they should do on the Internet," Gulotta told Education World in a recent interview. "We tell our children never to talk to strangers in person, but we don't do a good job of telling them not to talk to strangers on the Internet.
"The Internet can be a valuable educational tool," Gulotta pointed out, "and the FBI doesn't try to discourage its use. We do, however, want parents and teachers to be aware of the risks and take steps to minimize them."
According to Gulotta, those steps should include the following:
According to Gulotta, middle school students and other young teens are most vulnerable to online dangers because they have greater access to the Internet than younger students, are often less closely supervised, and are more willing to participate in discussions about emotions and relationships.
Marcie Murphy, assistant to Lynne A. Battaglia, U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, agrees that students should have Internet access-- as long as they and their parents are aware of where online dangers lie. To promote that awareness, Murphy and Gulotta participate in a Maryland program that offers presentations about online safety to PTA groups. The program was started by the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office after the number of online predator cases investigated by the FBI increased by more than 100 percent between 1998 and 1999.
"There is a lot more awareness about online dangers now," Murphy said, "but we still need to be concerned about those parents who think a computer is like a TV. Parents need to recognize that on the Internet kids aren't just watching. They are interacting with other people."
Most kids are more comfortable on computers than their parents are, Murphy pointed out. Schools need to provide resources and information that will help parents protect their kids online. According to Murphy, schools can provide parents with information about online dangers and how to deal with them; stress the importance of proper supervision; recommend screening software, especially for elementary school students; and create safe-site lists that students can use at home and in class.
One of the most surprising findings in the NCMEC report was that less than 10 percent of online sexual solicitation or harassment was reported to authorities-- and that only a small percentage of families even knew how to report such incidences.
Do you know what to do?
According to Peter Gulotta, "If a child reports being approached online, immediately write down as much information as possible, including the screen name or e-mail address of the person who contacted the child; the URL of the chat room, if applicable; and the date and time of the contact. Then report the incident to the local police department or FBI."
In addition, the NCMEC maintains a Cybertipline (1-800-843-5678: 1-800-THE-LOST), which "handles leads from individuals reporting the sexual exploitation of children."
According to the NCMEC, the report Online Victimization revealed information about kids' online interactions that can help schools prepare more effective programs for teaching about online safety. The study found that
Based on those findings, the NCMEC report offers a number of recommendations to help make the Internet safe for young people. The following steps are most relevant to educators:
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