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Protect your children from online predators

Story Highlights

• Expert: Parents need to take precautions against predators
• Parents need to become more Web savvy
• Do not let a child have a computer in his or her bedroom
• Monitor your child's surfing, "Google" his or her name
By Peggy Mihelich
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KENNESAW, Georgia (CNN) -- For parents, the Internet can be like navigating a minefield.

While the Web allows kids the freedom to make friends, play games and research homework with the click of a button, it can pose a potential danger as online predators, cyberbullies and scam artists ply their trade.

"Your child could be physically harmed by someone he or she encounters online and later meets in person," said online security expert Benjamin Halpert on Thursday as he addressed a group of security experts at the 2007 Cyber Crime Summit in Kennesaw. (Watch and learn more about cybercrimes against kids Video)

"A lot of parents think, 'It will never happen to my kid,' and that's not true," he said, adding that boys and girls are victimized in equal numbers.

Parents need to take precautions, Halpert said. In "SafeOnline 101" Halpert gives parents the tools they need to protect their children from cyberthreats.

And while there's no easy solution, preventative measures can greatly reduce a child's chances of becoming a victim.

"The biggest thing is to start early. Children are going online at a younger and younger age these days. The younger you can start the better, talking to your children about it, so that it becomes ingrained as they go forward," he said.

Halpert offered common-sense steps for parents.

First he says parents need to become more computer literate and Web savvy. Take for example, instant messaging. Parents need to learn the lingo: POS is short for "parents are looking over my shoulder" and LMIRL means "let's meet in real life."(Read the FBI's lingo list -- PDFexternal link)

And do not let a child have a computer in his or her bedroom. Halpert equates that to giving a child to a complete stranger and walking away.

Instead, the computer should be in a high-traffic part of the home like the family room or kitchen. Monitor your child's surfing by wandering in and out of the room periodically and checking. (Parent safety checklist)

Halpert said Web cams are a bad idea, citing that too often they are used by online predators to solicit sexual activity.

Next establish ground rules for online use. Write up the rules and place a copy by the computer so your child can refer to them while surfing the Web. Also, have the child sign an Internet use pledge that everyone can live by and stick to. (Get a copy of a parent-child agreement form -- PDF))

Parental controls

More than half of American families with teens use filters to limit access to potentially harmful online content, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Halpert said parents should know what these tools can and cannot do and how they work.

They are very effective at limiting time spent online, the sites kids can visit and the types of communications they can use, but they also might filter out sites a child might want to look at for school work.

Parents also can use monitoring software that will follow their children's every keystroke. Halpert suggests parents talk with their children before employing monitoring software.

"Make sure they understand that there is a reason why they are being monitored and that you are actually going to do it to protect them from something bad happening to them," he said.

Develop a trusting relationship so that if they do experience a problem online they will feel comfortable coming to you. And don't get mad at them with what they may show or tell you -- they may not come to you the next time something questionable happens.

Social networks

Have you ever "Googled" your child's name?

Halpert said it works for both adults and children and is a good indicator for finding out what personal information may be out there.

If your teenager is part of a social networking site like MySpace, Halpert suggested having the child set his or her profile to "private." "Instruct them, talk to them about the best way to use the technology to keep it less personal than they may would otherwise."

Read the privacy policy for any site that asks children for their personal information.

If a site is specifically child oriented it must meet Federal Trade Commission guidelines. Find out if the sites they visit comply and what rules are in place. Under law, if a child is under 13, Web sites have to get parental permission to get personal information.

If your child is into online role-playing games like Club Penguin, Halpert suggests sitting with your child while they are playing the game. "See exactly what's happening, so if something does happen you can understand the context and where it came from."

Supervise any activity that may put them into contact with someone you or they don't know.

Halpert said parents should report any suspicious activity to the Internet Service Provider, and local and federal authorities.

It's about communicating and guiding them, Halpert concluded. Done carefully they can enjoy the Web for all the good it has to offer.

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