Never talk to strangers.
It's an adage parents have taught their children for generations to protect them from people who would do them harm.
Now many young people live in two worlds: the neighborhoods outside their front doors and the densely-populated cyberworld they visit via computers in their living rooms or bedrooms. While the Internet can be an invaluable resource for children cramming for geography tests or even gospel study, it simultaneously offers paths where dangerous strangers lurk.
The age-old advice to stay clear of strangers certainly applies in cyberspace, says Mark Shurtleff, Utah's Attorney General. Chat rooms have given predators unprecedented access to young people. Every year, law officers attached to the Utah Attorney General's Office arrest dozens of people who have harmed or intended to harm children they have met in chat rooms, including some who traveled from across the country to Utah to commit such crimes. A survey cited on the attorney general's website revealed that one in five teens has received an unwanted online request to engage in sexual activities or provide sexual information.
Such data has left Mr. Shurtleff with a straight-forward opinion of children and chat rooms: they don't mix.
"There's no good whatsoever in them," he said.
In an attempt to curb cybercrimes, folks from the Utah Attorney General's Office have spoken to more than 18,000 Utah school children in the past year about the danger of cyber stalkers. Their enforcement and educational efforts have gleaned the attention of law agencies worldwide who are concerned about Internet predators exploiting and victimizing children in their jurisdictions.
Again, parents can most effectively protect their children from Internet predators by forbidding chat room visits entirely, Mr. Shurtleff said. But if young people must visit, he suggests they use some sort of "buddy chat" system that allows in only people that the children and their parents know.
If young people do find themselves in an open chat room they should never give out any sort of personal information including their names, ages, where they go to school, where they live, interests, hobbies or other preferences. Many Internet predators are adept at piecing together bits of information that could ultimately identify the young chatter, Mr. Shurtleff said.
Entrusting children to use the Internet in any form is a lot like handing them the keys to the car. Problems are often avoided when parents are aware of what their sons or daughters are up to.
"Don't ever let children have a computer with Internet access in their own rooms," advises Mr. Shurtleff. Moms and dads should place computers in heavy-use areas of the house. Parents should also know their children's Internet account passwords.
Diligent Internet-use awareness may be the first step in protecting young people.
"It's amazing how we sometimes see [the Internet] as a baby-sitting tool," Mr. Shurtleff said.
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