The blinders were removed from parents and children alike when John Cleveland of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency spent the day at Thomson Middle School Tuesday, Sept. 5.
Mr. Cleveland gave a presentation to students and their parents on the dangers young people face on the internet. These online risks include: exposure to pornography, sexual solicitation, harassment and bullying, and identity theft.
"This has been very eye opening for someone who thought I knew a good bit about the internet," Judy Hobbs said after the parent's class.
Each presentation included short videos giving real-life examples of how predators seek young people, how the youth become involved, as well as testimonies of victims and convicted sexual offenders.
97 percent of offenders were people that the youth met online: 65 percent in chat rooms and 24 percent through instant messaging.
Instant messaging, also called IM, is a service that allows two people to send and receive messages almost instantly.
Mr. Cleveland said youth who instant message take pride in the number of contacts they have on their contact list. Many youth swap lists with their friends, and then swap with someone else.
"So soon your child is talking to friends of friends of friends, and they don't know who they are talking to," he said.
According to the cyberangels.org website, pedophiles seduce their prey in stages, first by investing large amounts of time giving the child attention. The predator will listen to the child, sympathize with complaints about family, friends or at school, and respond in ways that reinforce feelings of alienation.
As time progresses, the predator will become more affectionate, working towards lowering the child's natural inhibitions. If the child has successfully been drawn into a symbiotic relationship, the predator will try to arrange a meeting. If the child expresses feelings that what they are doing is wrong, the pedophile can often overrule this feeling with massive amounts of affection.
"The Georgia Bureau of Investigations is all over this, if it gives y'all any consolation," Mr. Cleveland said to the parents.
The videos also explained how quickly any predator can locate a child through information obtained from a chatroom. A chatroom is a location online where many people type and send messages that appear almost instantly on the computer monitors of others who are participating in the discussion. Chatrooms are established so that people can discuss a common interest.
The video, called "Tracking Teresa," views a computer monitor in which a teen has participated in a chatroom. Even though Teresa only gives her first name, it only takes 20 minutes of internet searching for the interested person to find out her full name, approximate age, hobbies, address, telephone number, email address, family members' names, times she is home and the school she attends.
Other ways predators find children are through their postings of personal information and photos on MySpace, Friendster, or Xanga.
"It opened my eyes," said Krysta Dean, a sixth grader. "I won't ever get on it again, except maybe to play a game."
Children as victims
Mr. Cleveland said children are ideal victims of sexual predators because they are naturally curious about sex and they lack emotional maturity, which makes them more susceptible to manipulation or intimidation. Also they have a strong desire for attention, validation, and affection. Children are taught to obey adult requests and demands and may be less likely to know when it isn't appropriate to do so.
Mr. Cleveland pointed out that children also may be hesitant to tell a trusted adult if they are approached in an inappropriate way, because of a feeling of embarrassment fear of punishment.
Older children and teens become victims because they have a need to defy their parents, particularly if there is a high level of parent-child conflict such as nagging or taking away privileges, or if there is not much communication with their parents.
While children are unaware the person they form an online relationship with is not who they portray, many teens know their predator is older or is interested in sex. Mr. Cleveland said pedophiles know how to manipulate teens, and teens agree to meet with them.
"Parents think 'my child wouldn't do that,' but with the anonymity of the internet, children feel free to do things you wouldn't believe," Mrs. Hobbs said.
According to Mr. Cleveland's presentation, common signs your child may be involved in an unhealthy online relationship are:
they become overly upset if their internet access is denied or restricted, even for a short period of time.
What to do
Mr. Cleveland said parents should establish rules for the internet. He said when a child is going out with friends, parents always ask who, what, when, and where. The same guidelines should apply for the internet.
-Establish rules for internet use: what sites can be visited, who they can talk to, how long they can be online, and where they are allowed to use a computer other than at home.
-Keep the computer in a common room.
"Having a child in their bedroom with a computer is like having them alone in a room full of strangers," Mr. Cleveland said.
-Discuss your child's online activities with them. Explain dangers of what can happen, and tell your child that if he/she comes in contact with someone suspicious, they should come to you about it.
-Keep the lines of communication open to your child at all times. Mr. Cleveland said parents should prepare themselves beforehand of how they will react if they find out their child has been in contact with an inappropriate person online. Reassure your child that you are on his/her side.
-Be informed. Mr. Cleveland said good websites parents can learn from are www.netsmartz.org and www.cybertipline.com. To test your computer and tell how much information is being given away online, visit http://privacy.net/analyze or www.grc.com. If you suspect your child is being groomed by a pedophile, contact the crime unit at firstname.lastname@example.org for help.
All the information given during the presentation was sponsored by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the GEMA. TMS Principal Claude Powell invited Mr. Cleveland to educate the students and parents.
"I don't want you to wind up in a situation where in the split of a moment, you do something stupid without thinking, and it may cost you your life," Mr. Powell told the students.
Mr. Powell said he plans to have Mr. Cleveland come back and address the issues of cyber bullying at some point in the future.