Parents Get Schooled on Online Safety

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It used to be that parents worried more about their kids when they were away from home, rather than when they all alone in their rooms. 

With all the latest technology, however, parents have a host of new risks to be concerned about.

It's no secret today's youth are fascinated with technology, from cell phones that take pictures to Ipods that hold thousands of tunes and chatting with friends online.

But not everyone online is a good  friend for kids.

"There are about 50,000 online predators at any given time trying to get at your child, your grandchild, while they're on their computers at home," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., warned.

Teaching parents how to protect their kids from those predators was the theme of the "Online Safety Forum" in Chesapeake, Va.

Forbes hosted the event -- one of several in Virginia's 4th district.

"I sit on the judiciary committee and we hear from other parents across the country," he told attendees. "Unfortunately some of the tales we hear from them, those situations that you and I could easily be in and where you just never suspected that something could happen and all of a sudden it happens to your son or daughter ... you want to make sure all other parents are aware of it and hopefully keep it from happening to your child."

The forum featured the videotaped congressional testimony of Alicia Kozolowica.

Alicia was 13 years old when she was befriended by an online predator in an Internet chat room. He kidnapped her, drove her across state lines and locked her in a cage where she was beaten, tortured and raped.

Experts say what happened to Alicia is all too common. The anonymity of the Internet means that trust and intimacy can develop quickly online, allowing predators to build relationships with inexperienced young people. It's a technique police call "grooming."

"It's just a conversation, electronic conversation," said FBI special agent John Moughan. "They're good conversationalists, they have the ability to listen to kids and to focus in on what their problems are."

Technology is changing faster than most adults can keep up with, and that means parents have to do more than just install safety features on their home computers. Experts say they they need to know where their kids go online and who they're talking to.

"What we really want to do is empower parents that when they leave these type of talks they can go back, they can go online, they can recognize the pages, they can be proactive," said VA Deputy Attorney General Lisa Hicks-Thomas. 

"They can help their children set their pages, if they're on these facebook or myspace accounts, set them to private so that they'll know, they'll have some actual tools," she said.

And with terms like "sexting" and "cyber bullying" in the news recently, it seems that kids are getting into more trouble on the Internet than on the playground.

"What they post online can stick with them forever," she added. "Employers, potential employers look at that information, potential admissions officers for colleges look at that information and their friends, and unfortunately predators look at that information as well."

Forbes says that's why parents need to get more involved.

"Sometimes as parents we're afraid that we're going to upset one of our children, [that] we're going to look like we're snooping on this," he said. "This is a day and age in which we to ask those questions and use that old adage better to be safe than sorry."

Parents agree.

"I have ... four boys," one parent said. "It just worries me. It bothers me about the things that are out there and I'm really glad that Congressman Forbes put this on and gave us some real good information that can help us out."

"I think it's obvious. I think it's our responsibility as parents to know what is out there facing our children," another added. "I don't think it's enough to ask our children or just to lay down rules. I think we have to understand and I don't feel like I understand enough."

*Originally aired July 2, 2009

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Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at Facebook.com/CharleneIsraelCBNNews.