Communicating through handwritten letters or sending photos via snail mail is part of the past now that online social networking Web sites have taken over. Social networking sites offer interactive tools that provide the ability to search for people and make a connection, share photos and communicate through instant messaging. These tools attract the younger generation's attention, and unfortunately a large number of sex offenders."There are more than one million computers online distributing (inappropriate) child (photos) and this number is not an estimate, it's a fact," emphasized Steven DeBrota, an assistant United States attorney in Indianapolis who specializes in computer crime, while speaking to a group of Legionnaires during The American Legion's recent Spring Meetings.
Today's youth have the ability to access computers in an instant due to their wide availability at school, home or even on cell phones. This quick access is convenient as it enables children to get online anywhere and any time, but it's also dangerous because children can fall prey to sex offenders when parental supervision is nonexistent.
"Those people (offenders) who are spending time on the Internet are only a few mouse clicks away from children, and the offenders are easily communicated with on the Internet through a wide variety of sources," DeBrota said. "Therefore, being involved in your child's social networking is critical."
As a result of DeBrota's ghastly facts, the impulse may be to limit children's access to computer use. But read before doing so because DeBrota went into greater detail after his presentation on additional ways parents can keep children safe from online sex offenders.
Q: What are the two types of social networking and which one is more dangerous?
A: Macro social networking involves large communicative groups such as Facebook, Twitter, bulletin boards or chat rooms. Micro social networking involves small groups such as www.ning.com  or www.gigatribe.com , which allow people to configure who they communicate with. The primary crime on the Internet is not macro but micro social networking because micro allows criminals to communicate with small groups about an idea such as child pornography. These criminals think they can keep police out of micro social networking groups and go ahead about their business. Therefore, parents should be more concerned if their teenager is in a micro social network of dangerous people.
Q: How can you monitor children when computer access is everywhere?
A: If you have a computer in your family room as a way of surveying what your children do online, teenagers are going to act like teenagers and do things when they're not at home. There are too many other places a teenager can get online where you won't be able to watch them - they can use a friend's computer or go to a wireless connection at a coffee shop. What you should do is start Internet social networking with children at a young age so they won't view you as an alien presence in their social networking.
The key point is that Internet social networking, the wide availability of computers and the portable nature of computers have fundamentally changed human behavior. At no surprise, it's fundamentally changed how criminals behave. It turns out that most criminals tend to be more toward the leading edge of technology use as opposed to the trailing edge. So the key thing for protecting children is you have to talk to children about their online activities just like you talk about alcohol or drugs.
Q: Should children be cautious about the material they read online?
A: Kids can obtain any information they want on the Web, but a lot of sites contain false information. That's because there are people out there who think it's funny to trick other people, they have bad judgment or they just don't know what they're talking about. And it turns out that each year we have a lot of teenagers get killed because they believed and followed something they read online. Therefore, we have to educate kids from a very young age that they can't rely on everything they read online. We have to make a real investment of our time and resources so we have different generations of people who understand what the implications are of social networking. Overall, we have to teach kids to be skeptical and not believe everything they read on the Web and that what they read should always come from a credible source.
Q: Name a few key points to keep children safe from offenders?
A: If you interview an offender who has seduced a teenager, you will uniformly hear that if they thought the family was paying attention to the kid they stayed away. To the offender, it's a dangerous kid to try to victimize with crime. The safe kids are the ones with parents involved in the social networking. The children that are unsafe are the ones that are doing it secretly where the parents don't have any idea what's going on. I've also noticed that families who don't sit down for dinner and spend time paying attention to their children often have children victimized by offenders. Many times children actively seek someone to have a relationship with and offenders give affection, attention and gifts. Children who seek affection are easy targets because they are willing.
My wife and I try to keep our two children, ages nine and 12, safe by becoming a friend on their Facebook account. So if a bad person were somehow to get into their Facebook group and do a little online reconnaissance, the offender will notice that dad is a federal prosecutor. Therefore, the opportunity for some bad person to get involved with my children is pretty low. So rather than not being involved in my children's social networking, I want to be involved. I want to make my children safer for having been involved. Every parent should and needs to feel this way in order to keep our children safe from online offenders.