Many people are not aware of the dangers for adults and children on the internet, ranging from cyberbullies to adults looking for sex with children to viruses and other types of malicious software. The goal of the local telecommunications industry has been mainly focused with getting people online, rather than teaching them how to use the internet safely.
The internet can be a wonderful resource for kids, to research school reports, communicate with teachers and other pupils, and play interactice games. Any kid old enough to type a few words can literally access the world, but that access can also pose hazards. For example, a young boy might go on the internet and do an online search for 'lego'. But with just one missed keystroke, the word 'legs' is entered instead, and the boy may be directed to websites with a focus on legs - some may contain pornographic material.
That is why it is important to be aware of what chidren see and hear on the internet, who they meet, and what they share about themselves online.
A federal law, the childrens online privacy protection act (COPPA) was created to help protect children online. It's designed to keep anyone from obtaining a childs personal information without a parent knowing about it and agreeing to it first.
COPPA requires websites to explain their privacy policies on the site and get parental consent before collecting or using a childs personal information, such as a name, address, phone number, or Social security number. The law also prohibits a site from requiring a child to provide more personal information than necessary to play a game, etc. But it is not just up to these laws, it is also up to the parent to try and monitor their childrens access on the internet. Online protection tools are available to help protect against predators but no option is 100% guaranteed.
Several sites have had talks about security and how to improve it. Facebook has come under fire for not doing enough to protect young people. MySpace, the biggest social networking site on the internet with more than 180 million user profiles, revealed it found 29,000 convicted sex offenders on its Web site.
Facebook, because of the murder of a 17 year old girl and the amount of complaints lodged, may have to give into pressure from the public and install a panic button on the website to help increase security.
Facebook meets UK child protection agency
By Adam Hartley
Facebook execs set to meet with UK child protection agency to discuss 'panic buttons' for the website
Facebook execs are set to meet with representatives of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) centre in Washington this week to discuss ways of making the online social networking service safer for youngsters.
Ceop's director Jim Gamble said there is an urgent need to discuss the possibility of installing 'panic buttons' on Facebook, following the recent murder 17-year-old student Ashleigh Hall by Peter Chapman, a man she met via the site.
Chapman, 33, has been jailed for at least 35 years for the killing.
Facebook has previously said that it would not install a panic button on its main pages for users, but it looks like it may well re-consider that view.
"If you're going to operate a business that encourages people to frequent your public place so that you can advertise to them, then let's look after them while they're there," said Mr Gamble.
Ceop received 252 complaints about Facebook during the first three months of 2010 – 40 per cent of which were about the potential "grooming" of children'.
There have been people trying to expose these predators, for example, the Trouble Shooters. Last February, the Trouble Shooters posed online as a 13-year-old Houston girl.
They entered several different chat rooms listed on both Yahoo and AOL and it didn't take long for Houston adult men to talk sex with them. Dozens went even further and sent private messages where they talked one on one. Then, some arranged to meet in person.
But instead of finding the young girl they thought they were chatting with online, these men found the Local 2 Trouble Shooters with cameras rolling.
The day after that report, law officers began investigating every man who knocked at the door.
The activites of a predator named Clawson in Texas came to light when Texas Rangers started investigating him, they said they discovered that his past online chatting led him to real sex meetings he had with two girls. Both girls told the Rangers about those sexual encounters.
A grand jury indicted Clawson on two felony child sex charges.
"Obviously, anytime you're dealing with someone who's seeking juveniles, it's satisfaction, due to the arrest was made and that the grand jury saw enough there to indict. So, yes, it's one less individual we have to worry about doing those types of things," said Sgt. David Rainwater, with the Texas Rangers.
Dr. Barbara Levinson counsels sex offenders and she's not surprised that police say they have found real victims because of the Trouble Shooter's investigation.
She said most men who look for underage sex online usually have quite a routine.
"It happens very fast. And the escalation can happen very fast," Levinson said. "They get them to be their friends and then they can get into very sexually explicit talk. And that's also part of the grooming. There remain men on the Internet that have done this over and over again and haven't gotten caught."
As for Clawson, he went before a judge and is free after posting a $20,000 bail.
One final example, from the thousands that exist, of how naive and trusting a young child can be, was the case of Danielle Helms' 14 year old daughter Kristin. She was like so many other teenagers who logged onto social networking sites looking for their friends and looking to make new ones.
Kristin Helms, a star student and athlete, was seduced by a predator nearly twice her age who traveled from Texas to California to have sex with her and when he left, the teen was psychologically crippled.
Kristin Helms eventually revealed her secret to her mother. Danielle Helms recalls her daughter telling her that she didn't mean to fall for him emotionally and saying, "It's not your fault, mom."
And then one day, while her parents were at church, Kristin hanged herself.
"It rips your soul in half, and I will never get that day out of my mind," said Helms. "It is an agonizing thought, the way we saw our baby."
Danielle Helms and her husband called the police when they learned Kristin was being seduced by Kiley Ryan Bowers, who was 27 at the time. They took away her computer, shut down her MySpace.com profile and forbade her to contact Bowers.
But Kristin Helms secretly communicated with Bowers, calling him behind her parents' back and using school computers to contact him.
Using internet communication tools such as social networking, chatrooms, email and instant messaging can put children at potential risk of encountering online predators. The anonymity of the internet means that trust and intimacy can develop quite quickly. Predators take advantage of this anonymity to bulid online relationships with inexperienced young people. Kids feel they are aware of the dangers of predators, but they are actually quite naive about online realtionships.
'Stanger, danger' was the main threat I was warned about growing up, the threat from the outside that crept in, the stranger in the darkened car that lured children in with candy. Now, sadly, parents must concern themselves not only with strangers hiding in public places but must contend with trusted caretakers who abuse children as well as the threat that comes from the internet.