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Posted April 30, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Supervise kids on the Web

Nicole Olea watches her son
Nicole Olea watches as her son Michael plays on his computer in their home near Winchester. Dennis Grundman/Daily

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Elizabeth Smoot -- Daily Staff Writer

Nicole and Denniss Olea taught their son, Michael, the alphabet at 12 months. By 15 months, he was sitting on his mother's lap tapping out words on her computer keyboard. Now, at age 5, there isn't much Michael can't accomplish with a click of the mouse, but as he's grown in age so have his parents' concerns about his surfing.

"We can't protect him from everything, but we're trying our hardest," said the Winchester mother of two.

The Internet presents awesome opportunities for children. Information about any topic can be found in seconds. Forget pulling out those encyclopedias that were last updated decades ago when grandma bought them for dad, or trudging to the library to flip through the old-fashioned card catalog. Researching topics for a school project has never been easier. Within moments on a computer, someone can search for and find the differences between Buddhism and Hinduism, which element is the best conductor of heat and definitions for Internet and World Wide Web, which aren't the same.

Social networking sites connect kids in a way no other technology has. When a local high school student was seriously injured recently, friends created a Facebook page to encourage others to pray for him. Within hours, hundreds of people had joined the site, sending get-well messages to the teen, his family and encouragement to each other. And social networking transcends age. Through Facebook, an 80-year-old Stephens City man recently reconnected with two daughters he hadn't had contact with in more than 50 years.
With any tool that provides opportunities for good, however, come many dangers as well. Hundreds of thousands of children each year encounter online dangers ranging from bullying to sexual predators and pornography. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, nearly half of teens with Internet access surveyed say they have been bullied online. Even more concerning, about one in seven children ages 10 to 17 have received an unwanted online sexual solicitation, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

Parents of all generations have worried about protecting their children, but this current techno-savvy generation is so connected that it's virtually impossible to know what they're up to at all times. While it may seem overwhelming, there are steps parents can take.
Being diligent is the best safeguard, said Gary W. Reynolds, executive director of the Safe Surfin' Foundation and former Winchester city police chief.

Reynolds joined the Bedford County Sheriff's Office in 2005, one of the first 10 agencies in the nation to develop a cyber crimes unit in 1997. There are now 59 task forces in the country. After posing as a teenager online for many years, Reynolds now travels the country to educate parents and children about Internet safety, through the Safe Surfin' Foundation, the educational arm of the Internet crimes task force. He recently held a forum at the Front Royal Moose Club.

"A child's innocence can never be replaced," Reynolds said. Parents "have a responsibility to make sure their kids are safe. Just as we have driver training, we should have training for kids before we put them out on the information highway."

While the Internet of the 1990s was primarily a one-way source of information, in this Web 2.0 environment, the Internet is a mobile place where users share videos and pictures and interact with each other not only on desktop computers, but also on cell phones, personal digital devices and even gaming systems.

Denise H. Orndorff has taught computer basics to kindergarten, first- and second-grade students at Strasburg's Sandy Hook Elementary School for three years. She thought she'd seen it all until a first-grader recently revealed that he could chat on his hand-held video game console.

"That floored me. I had no idea," she said.

In 2006, Virginia became the first state to require public schools to teach Internet safety. Orndorff stresses the basics of safety with her young students. "We relate it to the information they already have on safety to how the computer fits in."

The biggest danger she cautions children about is being lured away by someone they meet on the computer, just as they might encounter a stranger face-to-face. Predators, she said, will patiently take months to build a rapport with a child who they might meet in a chat room or through instant messaging. She teaches children not to share personal information with anyone they don't know, not to buy games online without their parents' knowledge, and if something pops up on their computer they're not sure about, to turn off the monitor - not shut it down - and tell an adult.

"I have to reach kids here because we don't know what the parents know or don't know," she said.

Internet safety experts say parents should put filtering and blocking software and kid-safe browsers on their computers and Internet providers are a good place to find that help, but they also caution filters aren't fool-proof.

Filters and blocks, which prevent access to certain sites and content, are "minimally effective," Reynolds said. "Monitoring is better."

The Oleas know all too well about the limitations of parental controls. While Michael is limited to certain websites his parents have selected, his ability to do Google searches on his own has taken him to places his parents never expected. After his parents showed him a kid-friendly video on Youtube, he started going there on his own, unbeknownst to the Oleas.

"We innocently opened up a can of worms," she said. "Somehow, he managed to bypass (the controls). I don't want him being exposed too soon."

Karen Dew, a detective with the Winchester Police Department and member of the Northern Virginia-D.C. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, encourages parents to place computers in common areas of the home where everyone can see it, set rules and restrictions with their children, know their passwords and limit how much time they can spend on it.

"The more time they spend on the computer, the more trouble they'll get into," she said.
Lawrence L. Muir Jr., a Virginia state assistant attorney general in the computer crime section, deals with youth after they get in trouble. At a recent talk in Winchester on Internet safety, Muir outlined the criminal repercussions many teens are finding themselves in.

Publicly make online jokes about another person, creating harassing images through photo manipulation and enticing people online to physically harm another person qualifies as cyberbullying and can lead to felony charges in Virginia, Muir said.

"Most kids don't know that Virginia is one of the few states that has cyberbullying statutes," he said.

One way to monitor your child's computer activity is to check the computer history often and to set a rule that your child may not erase their history, experts agree.

When on social networking sites, privacy settings can ensure only people invited in can see the postings. Children also should never post pictures or messages that could get them in trouble. More and more colleges are checking social networking sites and even denying admission to potential students based upon what they find. Employers often use the sites to screen job candidates.

Mrs. Olea praises the positive aspects of the Internet. Technology, she said, has helped her son read at a third-grade level and tackle first-grade math problems. She spends a lot of time online herself, writing a blog and trying to build an online business, but she acknowledges the growing dangers.

"We like technology, but we don't want him growing up too fast," she said. "When I do searches, I run across things that aren't appropriate." Games sites, she said, have ads that can take her son off the approved site and into other areas. Website managers who take advantage of misspelled words in searches aggravate her. Misspelling an innocent word in a Google search -- such as Disney -- can take her son to sites she'd rather him not view. "As a parent, that pisses me off. It's like they're preying on that innocence.

"It freaks us out at some of the things he's doing," she added. "He knows how to use the computer proficiently. At some point, we're afraid he'll be able to outsmart us."


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