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Online predators

Using Internet communication tools such as chat rooms, e-mail and instant messaging can put children at risk of encountering online predators. The anonymity of the Internet means that trust and intimacy can develop quickly online. Predators take advantage of this anonymity to build online relationships with inexperienced young people. Parents can help protect their kids by becoming aware of the risks related to online communication and being involved in their kids' Internet activities.

How do online predators work?

Predators establish contact with kids through conversations in chat rooms, instant messaging, e-mail or discussion boards. Many teens use "peer support" online forums to deal with their problems. Predators, however, often go to these online areas to look for vulnerable victims.

Online predators try to gradually seduce their targets through attention, affection, kindness, and even gifts, and often devote considerable time, money and energy to this effort. They are aware of the latest music and hobbies likely to interest kids. They listen to and sympathize with kids' problems. They also try to ease young people's inhibitions by gradually introducing sexual content into their conversations or by showing them sexually explicit material.

Some predators work faster than others, engaging in sexually explicit conversations immediately. This more direct approach may include harassment or stalking. Predators may also evaluate the kids they meet online for future face-to-face contact.

Which young people are at risk?

Young adolescents are the most vulnerable age group and are at high risk of being approached by online predators. They are exploring their sexuality, moving away from parental control and looking for new relationships outside the family. Under the guise of anonymity, they are more likely to take risks online without fully understanding the possible implications.

Young people who are most vulnerable to online predators tend to be:

  • new to online activity and unfamiliar with "Netiquette"
  • actively seeking attention or affection
  • rebellious
  • isolated or lonely
  • curious
  • confused regarding sexual identity
  • easily tricked by adults
  • attracted by subcultures apart from their parents' world

Kids feel they are aware of the dangers of predators, but in reality they are quite naive about online relationships. In focus groups conducted by the Media Awareness Network, girls aged 11 to 14 initially said they disguised their identities in chat rooms. They admitted, however, that it was impossible to maintain a false identity for long and eventually revealed personal information when they felt they could "trust a person."

Building this "trust" took from 15 minutes to several weeks - not a long time for a skillful predator to wait.

How can parents minimize the risk of a child becoming a victim?

  • Get involved; talk to your kids about sexual predators and potential online dangers.

  • Young children shouldn't use chat rooms, period - the dangers are too great. As children get older, direct them towards well-monitored kids' chat rooms. Even your teens should be encouraged to use monitored chat rooms.

  • If your children take part in chat rooms, make sure you know which ones they visit and with whom they talk. Monitor the chat areas yourself to see what kind of conversations take place.

  • Instruct your children to never leave the chat room's public area. Chat rooms offer users one-on-one chats with other users - so chat monitors and other users can't read these conversations.

  • Keep the Internet-connected computer in a common area of the house, never in a child's bedroom. It is much more difficult for a predator to establish a relationship with your child if the computer screen is easily visible.

  • When your children are young, they should share the family e-mail address rather than have their own e-mail accounts. As they get older, you can ask your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to set up a separate e-mail address, but your children's mail can still reside in your account.

  • Tell your children to never respond to instant messaging or e-mails from strangers.

  • For places outside your supervision - public library, school, or friends' homes - find out what computer safeguards are used.

  • Make sure you have rules about meeting Internet friends in person; a parent must be told if a meeting is being planned and a parent should be in attendance at the meeting. Rules do make a difference. Research by the Media Awareness Network in 2005 shows having a rule about meeting online acquaintances (which 74 per cent of households have) reduces the likelihood of this happening by one-half.

  • If all precautions fail and your kids do meet an online predator, don't blame them. The offender always bears full responsibility.

How can your kids reduce the risk of being victimized?

There are a number of precautions to take, including:

  • never downloading images from an unknown source - they could be sexually explicit

  • telling an adult immediately if anything happens online that makes them feel uncomfortable or frightened

  • choosing a gender-neutral screen name that doesn't contain sexually suggestive words or reveal personal information

  • never revealing personal information (including age and gender) to anyone online and not filling out online personal profiles

How can you tell if your child is being targeted?

It is possible that your child is the target of an online predator if:

  • Your child or teen spends a great deal of time online
    Most children who are victims of online predators spend a lot of time online, particularly in chat rooms.

  • You find pornography on the family computer
    Predators often use pornography to sexually victimize children - supplying it to open sexual discussions with potential victims. Predators may use child pornography to convince a child that adults having sex with children is "normal." You should be aware that your child may hide pornographic files on diskettes, especially if other family members use the computer.

  • Your child or teen receives phone calls from people you don't know; or makes calls (sometimes long distance) to numbers you don't recognize
    Online predators may try to contact young people to engage in "phone sex," or to try to set up a real-world meeting. If kids hesitate giving out their home phone number, online sex offenders will provide theirs. Some even have toll-free 1-800 numbers, so potential victims can call them without their parents' knowledge. Others will tell children to call collect - and then, with Caller ID or Call Display, they can easily determine the phone number.

  • Your child or teen receives mail, gifts or packages from someone you don't know
    It is common for offenders to send letters, photographs and gifts to potential victims. Computer sex offenders even send airline tickets to entice a child or teen to meet them.

  • Your child or teen withdraws from family and friends; or quickly turns the computer monitor off or changes the screen if an adult enters the room
    Online predators work hard to drive wedges between kids and their families, often exaggerating minor problems at home. Sexually victimized children tend to become withdrawn and depressed.

  • Your child is using someone else's online account
    Even kids who don't have access to the Internet at home may meet an offender while online at a friend's house or the library. Predators sometimes provide victims with a computer account so they can communicate.

What can you do if your child is being targeted?

  • If your child receives sexually explicit images from an online correspondent, or if she or he is solicited sexually, contact your local police. You can also report incidents to the Cybertip! hotline at http://www.cybertip.ca. For more information, see the Reporting Trouble section of our Web site.

  • Check your computer for pornographic files or any type of sexual communication - these are often warning signs

  • Monitor your child's access to all live electronic communications, such as chat rooms, instant messages and e-mail. Online predators usually meet potential victims in chat rooms at first, and then continue communicating with them through e-mail.

Does Canadian law protect children from online predators?

Some forms of online harassment are criminal acts under Canadian law. Under the Criminal Code, it is a crime to communicate repeatedly with someone if your communication causes them to fear for their safety or the safety of others. In 2002, Canada enacted legislation targeting criminals who use the Internet to lure and exploit children for sexual purposes.

Source: Some of the above information was adapted, with permission, from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation publication A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety. It has been rewritten for Canadian audiences with the assistance of the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police Service's High Tech Crime Team.

Internet FAQ

1. At what age should I let my children go on the Internet?

Children are going online at younger and younger ages - in fact, the fastest growing segment of Internet users is now pre-schoolers! Many kids are using the Internet at school by six years of age, so realistically, they will probably want to be going online at home around this age as well. Children under ten, however, generally don't have the critical thinking skills to be online alone, so until this age you must be totally involved in their Internet use. Sit with them whenever they are online. Make sure they only go to sites you have chosen. Teach them to never reveal personal information over the Internet.

2. Should I let my children have their own e-mail accounts?

Young children should share a family e-mail address rather than have their own accounts. As they get older and want more independence, you can give them their own address. The mail can still reside in your family inbox, so you can ask about any suspicious-looking messages they may get. Ask your Internet Service Provider (ISP) what options it provides for family e-mail accounts.

By Grade 7, most kids want to have their own e-mail accounts, and they'll have no trouble getting one through free services such as Hotmail or Yahoo! Make sure they take every precaution to protect their e-mail address so they don't receive junk e-mail and messages from strangers.

3. What house rules should I have for Internet use?

Its important to know that rules do have a positive effect on young peoples behaviour. For example, Media Awareness Network (MNet) research from 2005 shows that having a rule about meeting online acquaintances in the real world reduces the likelihood that a young person will do so by one-half. Although kids are more likely to break a rule as they get older, the very fact that the one exists continues to affect their behaviour positively. Kids in Grades 8 to 9 are twice as likely to go to inappropriate sites when there is no house rule against this activity.

Negotiate an online agreement with your kids outlining the rights and obligations of computer use at home. Make sure the agreement clearly sets out: where your kids can go online and what they can do there; how much time they can spend on the Internet; what to do if anything makes them uncomfortable; how to protect their personal information; how to ensure safety in interactive environments; and how to behave ethically and responsibly while online.

Your children's input is critical to the success of the agreement. Print it out and keep it by the family computer to remind everyone of the rules. Review it regularly, and update it as your kids are older.

4. How old should my child be to use MSN?

Instant messaging has replaced the phone as the main communication tool for students as young as Grade 4. MNet research from 2005 shows that 43 per cent of Grade 5 students instant message with friends on a daily basis, so denying access to this popular tool will place limitations on your childs social life. Once kids start using instant messaging, parents have an important role to play in ensuring their privacy is protected and they are using the technology responsibly.

Your MSN rules should include:

  • no filling out a personal profile
  • never talk to strangers (you should check their contact lists regularly to make sure they know everyone on them)
  • no spreading rumours and gossip or hateful messages using MSN.

5. Can I read my child's MSN instant messaging conversations?

Yes, MSN is set up to automatically save chat logs in a folder on your computer. You can check your hard drive for a folder called "My chat logs". The default location is usually under: C:\My Documents\. If kids know about these logs, however, it's easy for them to go into "Options" in MSN and disable this feature. In the end having good open dialogue with kids is much more constructive then spying on them. They will always be one step ahead of us when it comes to technology. You need to get good rules in place and trust that your kids will follow them.

6. Should kids be using blogging or social networking sites such as Do You Look Good, Nexopia and Piczo?

MNet research from 2005 shows that social networking sites are extremely popular with Canadian kids, particularly girls in grades 8 to 11. Users create profiles on these sites, which often contain personal information and photos. While the age restriction is 14 years and older for Nexopia and 13 for Piczo and Do You Look Good, the content on these sites can be inappropriate for young teens. If your kids are using blogging or social networking sites you should view their profiles and blogs to ensure that no personal information or photos have been posted.

7. Are Webcams safe for kids to use?

Cheaper prices and ease of use mean that Webcams are becoming increasing popular with young people. MNet research shows that 22 per cent of Canadian students have Webcams (31% by Grade 11). For safety and security reasons Webcams should not be attached to computers in kids' rooms where their use can't be monitored. It's important to establish house rules for Webcams including:

  • Only use the Webcam with people you know.
  • Always keep the lens cap closed or unplug the Webcam from the computer when not in use.
  • Never do anything in front of a Webcam that you wouldn't want the entire world to see.
  • Don't post Webcam videos on the Web.

8. How can I prevent pop-ups on my computer?

The easiest way to avoid pop-ups is to use blocking software that you can buy or download free from the Internet. You can also use a specialty “toolbar” with your browser. Many toolbars allow you to click on a button to block pop-ups, and then click again to disable the pop-up blocking feature. There are privacy issues around using specialty toolbars, however, because they can be used to trace your Internet tracks.

You can ask at your local computer store for toolbar and pop-up blocking software suggestions or check out the CNet site for free downloads:

9. Can kids become addicted to the Internet?

The Internet is a wonderful tool for young people, especially for those who have difficulties with peer interactions. Computer-savvy kids can shine on the Internet because looks and athletic ability are not important, and this can help build their self-esteem. However, excessive computer use may further isolate shy kids from their peers or take away from other activities such as homework or sleep. Parents and teachers are often unaware that there is problem until it is serious. This is because it is easy to hide online activities and because Internet addiction is not widely recognized.

Establish rules around computer use and try to balance it with more physical activity. Also, make sure your Internet-connected computer is out in the open, not in your child's room.

Finally, look at your own Internet use. Do you spend hours online? If you do, your children are likely to follow your example.

10. What should my kids know about computer viruses?

A virus is a malicious software program that infects computer files or disk drives and then makes copies of itself. Many of the activities that kids do online can leave computers vulnerable to viruses. E-mail attachments are the most common means of distributing viruses, but they can also be downloaded using file-sharing and instant messaging programs. Make sure your children understand to never open an e-mail attachment they haven't requested; to configure their instant messaging program so they cannot receive files from other users; to never download files ending in ".exe" when using file-sharing programs; and to never download any program off the Internet without checking with a parent first. You can protect your computer by always running up-to-date firewall and anti-virus software.

11. I am concerned about my kids' Internet use. Can I track where they are going online?

Yes, you can track where they've been online, but be aware that computer-savvy kids know how to cover their Internet tracks. Clear rules about Internet use and open communication with your kids are more effective than invading their privacy. 

When you surf the Internet, your Web browser (Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator) collects information about the places you visit, and stores it on your computer.

Browsers usually keep 'history' files of recently visited sites. Most versions of Internet Explorer have a History button on the top toolbar. If you don't see the button, or if you are a Netscape user, simply press the Ctrl (control) and H keys at the same time, which will also bring up your history listings. Double click on any listing to view the site.

Browsers also make temporary copies of Web pages, known as cache files, and stores them on your computer. Internet Explorer allows users to click on either Tools or View. Next, select Internet Options and click on General and then Settings. Finally, click on View Files to see a list of all the cached Web pages on your computer.

In Netscape you select Edit, then Preferences. Click on Advanced and select Cache. Look beside the Choose Folder button to see where your cache files are stored on your hard drive. 

There are also many kinds of software that will let you monitor various online activities. To find out more you can go to the GetNetWise site at: http://kids.getnetwise.org/tools/ Scroll down to the bottom of the page to "Find Tools for Your Family" and search under "monitors".

You should also check out a good computer store and ask what products they recommend.

12. What should I do if my child is being harassed online?

If this occurs, you can 'block' the person sending the harassing messages. There are 'block' options in e-mail and instant messaging programs. Save any harassing e-mail messages and forward them to your child's e-mail service provider. Most providers have appropriate use policies that restrict users from harassing others over the Internet.

If the harassment consists of comments posted on a Web site, contact your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and ask for help to locate the ISP hosting the site. You can then contact the ISP and bring the offensive comments to their attention.

You should also contact your local police department. Harassment is a crime in Canada, both in the real world and on the Internet. It is illegal to communicate repeatedly with someone if your communication causes them to fear for their own safety or the safety of others.

13. Does filtering software work?

Filtering tools may be helpful with young children, to complement - not replace - parental supervision. Filters and blockers, however, are not foolproof and they often fail to keep out inappropriate material. According to a 2001 Consumer Report, filters failed to block 20 per cent of objectionable sites. They can also block a lot of useful content, which your kids may need for their school assignments.

While filters may be useful when your kids are young, as they grow older they will need to develop safe and responsible online behaviour. Parents and teachers are best equipped to teach kids how to responsibly use the Internet.

14. My teen wants to shop online. How can I be sure the site is secure?

If kids and teens shop online, they need solid guidelines to keep their transactions safe and secure. Teach them how to tell when it is all right to give credit information to a Web site by looking for: a Better Business Bureau quality assurance seal; an unbroken lock icon at the bottom left-hand corner of the page (ensuring that only you and the Web site can view financial transactions); or an "https" in the address box of your browser, which also ensures a secure environment. Make sure your browser supports 128-bit encryption to ensure your credit card number is automatically encrypted, or scrambled, before it is sent. (The latest versions of both Internet Explorer and Netscape support 128-bit encryption.)

15. What should I look for in a kids' site privacy policy?

Privacy policies outline the privacy terms and conditions of a site. Often, however, these policies are vague, misleading or non-existent. When you read a privacy policy, you want to know: what information is being collected or tracked, and how this information will be used (especially, whether it will be sold to a third party); do you have the ability to change or delete data collected from your children; what steps are taken to safeguard kids in chat rooms, message boards and e-mail activities on the site; and does the site try to obtain verifiable, parental consent before a child releases personal information online.