Parents first defense against predators

Published 2:50 pm Friday, June 2, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES - Sexual predators aren't simply roaming the streets looking for their prey.
They can easily enter your home in ways you may have never considered.
Parents must not only monitor their children's safety while playing at the park or walking home from school. They must also pay close attention to the websites their children enter and the people they electronically talk with while online on home computers.
That was the message Niles area parents heard Thursday night at Niles High School.
"When we get into a chatroom, we're inviting a predator to pull up a seat," said Rob Herbstreith, Michigan State Police Trooper and Niles Post 53 Community Service Officer.
Herbstreith led the presentation on computer safety awareness to a small group of parents and children.
The best way to stress how important it is for parents to get involved with their children's internet use is to show a scary side of internet chat rooms, Herbstreith said.
Many of the statistics Herbstreith mentioned would catch any parent's attention. The numbers were pulled from an educational website for child and teen internet use called Web Wise Kids, Herbstreith said.
For example, a study by Pew Internet and American Life found 87 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 currently use the internet. The same study states about 60 percent of sixth graders use the internet, and by seventh grade that number leaps to 82 percent.
The Pew Internet and American Life study went on to state nearly 60 percent of teens have received an instant message or email from a stranger and 50 percent said they have emailed or instant messaged with someone they never met before. Additionally, 52 percent of teens said they don't worry at all about being contacted online.
Herbstreith demonstrated how easy it could be to identify and locate an individual who frequents an online chat room like Xanga, MySpace and Teen Spot.
Most chatrooms give regular visitors the option of completing a user profile, which tells certain information such as age, sex, location - known as ASL in online instant messaging - marital status, hobbies, occupation, a personal quote and sometimes a photo. The intent of the profile is to give other online chatters an idea of who they're communicating with.
The information can tell a lot about an individual. But, it can also hide a great deal as well, because anyone can pose as a 14-year-old teen.
Teens who are using chatrooms for the right reasons and who create user profiles to connect with other people their own age must be careful as well.
Herbstreith warned certain simple characteristics could actually serve as clues to an online predator.
In his real-life and legal example, Herbstreith noted the user profile in question, Amanda01, stated “babysitting my baby brother Bill, Jr.” as a hobby. Such a statement could provide an online predator with at least two clues, Herbstreith said. The term “baby brother” is generally not used by adults, but more common with young girls. Plus, Bill, Jr. is a tip that the father of Amanda01 - the user name itself is not gender neutral - is most likely Bill or William.
Herbstreith was able to continue the search because the same online user with a chatroom profile was also an avid purchaser and trader of Beanie Babies, and, provided a phone number and said the best time to contact them was after 5:30 p.m. EST. A clue that means Amanda01 lives in the Eastern time zone.
A reverse look-up using the phone number provided by Amanda01 produced an address. A minute or two on MapQuest provided directions to the home. Plus, only a female name was listed with the address, which could mean Amanda01's father does not live at the home.
In about 45 minutes, Herbstreith was able to locate a teenage girl hundreds of miles away without making verbal contact with the individual. And the search went further as Herbstreith was able to find names and addresses of an elementary and middle school in the area.
Disguising a user profile often doesn't occur to people because they are communicating in the comfort of their home.
Preventing children and teens from exposing too much information starts with parents, Herbstreith said.
He offered tips for a safer online environment:
Don't let children rule the computer. Establish firm rules, as well as passwords and time limits.
Encourage children to be honest with parents and report any inappropriate activities.
Don't think of the internet as a babysitter.
Keep the computer in a public area of the house.
Don't overreact. A child's fear of being “unplugged” could push them to hide information.
Learn how to block, filter and find the sites children visit, but don't rely on software.
Use the internet together and let children teach the parents.
Herbstreith also discussed ways parents can identify a child who may already be hiding online activities from adults. Do children:
Have more friends online than in real life?
Stop regular activities to be online?
Act withdrawn?
Suffer in school or at work?
Minimize the screen when parents enter the room?
To learn more about safe internet use, such as how to check your computer's history and how to stay informed about online chatrooms, visit or call Web Wise Kids at (714) 435-2885.