AIKEN — It’s 10 p.m. and your children are home, safe and sound. Or are they?
Safety is a relative term if children and teenagers are allowed to wander unsupervised in cyberspace, said Capt. Maryann Burgess, with the Aiken Dept. of Public Safety’s juvenile division.
Burgess is part of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which means she captures pedophiles, sadists, kidnappers and other criminals by posing as a child online.
While she was training for the task force, she said she was so disturbed by the brutality directed against children that she could not sleep.
“I had no clue myself what was out there. I was mortified,” Burgess said.
Since then, she has joined NetSm artz, which is a task force campaign to educate parents and children about internet safety. Burgess said she speaks at schools, churches, social organizations and anywhere else that will have her.
The first big rule for internet safety, she said, is to place the computer in a family room where everyone can see it. Second, never post personal information: not your name, your school, your sports team or your family members. Nothing.
“People are always amazed how easy it is to take one or two pieces of information and from that, find a child,” Burgess said.
For this reason, young children should not have e-mail, visit chat rooms or create Web pages. These are the hunting grounds for pedophiles.
Older children need constant supervision, she said. Don’t worry about invading their privacy. Look at their MySpace page, know what pictures they are posting and talk to them.
Burgess said she is haunted by the real victims of internet crime that she has met; girls and boys who were sexually abused through words and images right on their computer. Worse are the ones who were lured from their homes to meet their internet “friend.”
“You could still hear and feel the trauma from these kids,” she said. “Our hopes [in going undercover] are that [predators] will end up with us and not an actual child.”
The parents who spoke to The Miscellany seemed savvy about the dangers of the internet and had strict rules in place regarding computer use.
Sandie Coons, a registered nurse at the Medical University of South Carolina’s heart and vascular center, said she keeps the family computer in the kitchen.
Coons has two children, ages 13 and 11, who attend Catholic school. So far, neither of them have their own e-mail accounts or pages on MySpace.com or Facebook.com. Coons said she also likes to sit with them when they search online so she can monitor what sites appear.
Many parents are shocked at how many seemingly innocent searches connect to pornographic Web sites.
Burgess said the porn industry intentionally names their pages after popular searches, such as video games and political subjects. With the smallest misspelling, even religious topics can land a searcher at a very non-religious site.
It is important for adults to realize that even the most well-behaved children will be curious about things they come across on the internet, Burgess said.
“You have to look, and stand over their shoulder every so often and ask what they’re doing,” she said.
One mother learned this lesson the hard way when she hired a computer expert to clean her system and discovered her teenage son was downloading X-rated movies.
Coons said she heard many stories like that when she contacted a computer company to upgrade her security system and install filters. She realizes both her children are computer proficient and said if they wanted to go behind her back they could.
This is where teaching values and respect comes into play, along with constant monitoring.
“They know that at any second I could walk into the kitchen and see what’s going on,” she said.
Burgess said there is plenty of software that will block harmful content or track where the user has been. Keystroke software captures what is typed and is password protected so only adults have access.
“There’s lots of different things out there that parents can do to protect their children even if the computer isn’t in an open room,” she said.
Nicole DeNeane said her family computer is in her office, which is off the kitchen. Her children are 6 and 10 and are members of a Catholic church in Charleston.
“There are times they’re in there by themselves, but I’m constantly peeking in,” she said. “Plus, I work on the computer all the time, so I know where they go.”
Her children do not have e-mail accounts or online social pages, and they are not allowed in chat rooms. The real problem, DeNeane said, isn’t what happens at home, but what could happen at other people’s houses.
Another couple, who asked to remain anonymous, related a traumatic event that happened to their child when she was invited to a birthday party sleep over. They didn’t know the other girl very well, or her parents, and debated whether to let their 10-year-old daughter attend.
After speaking to the parents hosting the party, they felt comfortable enough to give their consent.
Many months later, the mother discovered that while her daughter was at the sleep over, she had gone downstairs looking for a group of girls who were still awake. She found them huddled in front of the computer, watching people engaged in a sexual act. Horrified at what she saw, the child told her mom that she ran back upstairs and pretended to be asleep.
Burgess said the first thing that needs to occur in this type of incident is to have a conversation with the parents who hosted the party.
“I obviously would have been outraged. Most parents would have,” she said.
Also, Burgess pointed out that when the host parents invited children to their house, they accepted responsibility for their well-being, and could face charges for not providing adequate protection.
This is the tough part about parenting, because people can’t always know what will happen.
But there are steps parents can take to prepare their children, Burgess said. Every time they go somewhere, talk to them about scenarios that might happen and what your children can do in response. Even if they roll their eyes and sigh heavily, saying “I know, Mom,” talk to them anyway.
Another good idea, she said, is to create a secret code so children can call a parent and let them know something is wrong without having to say what it is.
Peer pressure and the fear of embarrassment are huge factors in children’s lives. They may not like what is going on, but will remain in a situation because they are afraid to speak up or tell an adult.
An imaginary ailment can be a lifesaver, Burgess said. It is important that your children understand this is not a lie, but a code to let mom or dad know something is wrong.
“Children are not equipped to make those decisions unless we talk to them about it and teach them,” she said.
For more information, visit www.netsmartz.org or to contact a speaker go to www.scattorneygeneral.org.