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March 6, 2013

Columnist: Keeping kids safe online

College football star Manti Te’o likely will suffer just personal embarrass-ment after the girlfriend he supposedly met online did not really exist. The same cannot be said for the teenagers who met Richard L. Finkbiner online.

Finkbiner has agreed to plead guilty to sexual exploitation of minors. Federal authorities say Finkbiner would visit anonymous video chat websites where he deceived teenagers into conducting sexually inappropriate behaviors that he secretly recorded. Finkbiner then allegedly threatened to post those images digitally unless the teens allowed him to record more explicit behaviors.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports 42 percent of 7th-9th graders reported communicating with at least one online stranger in the last year. In addition, one-third of children have experienced unwanted exposure to sexual material online, and 14 percent of youth 10-17 years old have received unwanted sexual solicitations online.

“Online predators currently seek out minors who are already engaging in risky behavior using online social networking sites and ‘anonymous’ chat websites,” said Joe Hogsett, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, whose office prosecuted Finkbiner. “In almost every case, the predator used online attention, affection and gifts to victimize the minors.

“The key to solving this problem is for parents to understand the scope of the challenge and become involved in a minor’s Internet social networking at an early age,” Hogsett added. “Street-smart minors, with involved parents, stay safe.”

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller recommends the free information and resources available at www.netsmartz.org. And Walt Mueller, whose Center for Parent Youth Understanding hosts the Digital Kids Initiative (www.digitalkidsinitiative.com), recommends the web filter Covenant Eyes.

But Mueller says filters do not guarantee online safety. Parents, he says, should assume their kids are going to encounter sexually explicit content or activity online, and handing technology to a child does not mean handing your parental duties to technology.

“It’s pretty simple,” Mueller said. “Set limits. Kids need limits.”

For example, parents can purchase password protected technology and keep computers where screens can be viewed at any time. Set a daily time limit for online activity, and increase the limit with age as parents see fit. In addition, set a curfew to turn off technology for the day. Importantly: no talking to strangers.

Mueller also encourages parents to join their kids online and stay ahead of the technology curve.

“Kids are always going to look for someplace to go where parents are not. We need to stay informed on what’s happening in the youth culture and know where our kids are because that changes almost daily.”

Locking the doors of our homes is much easier than guarding the doorways to cyberspace. Staying involved with kids online offers the highest return on Internet safety.

Bill Stanczykiewicz is President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at iyi@iyi.org.

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