Keeping Your Child from the Internet's Dark Side

Kacie Woody was a 13-year-old middle school student in Greenbrier, Ark. Like many teens, she enjoyed the Internet. The personal profile she wrote for Yahoo chat rooms read:

Real name: Kacie Location: Arkansas Marital Status: Long-term relationship Gender: Female Occupation: Messenger of God More About Me: I write love poems, play alto sax, am in the school choir and recently tried out for soccer. I’m 13 now. Latest News: October 3rd I started going out with Scott. The sweetest, cutest, smartest, funniest, sexiest guy ever. I love him with all my heart.

You might think from this profile that Scott was a fellow student at Kacie’s school. But Kacie had never met Scott; he lived in Georgia, and their relationship had begun in a chat room.

And Scott was not Kacie’s first Internet boyfriend. Earlier she had a relationship with “Dave Fagen,” who described himself as an 18-year-old from San Diego. She began talking online with Dave after they “met” in a Yahoo chat room for Christian teenagers. Even after she “broke up” with Dave and started “going out” with Scott, she continued talking with Dave on the phone.

Kacie’s friends worried that she was too trusting—how could she know who Scott and Dave really were? How could she give them her phone number? Kacie didn’t listen.

On the night of December 3, 2002, Kacie was home alone while her father worked the night shift as a police officer. She was talking with Scott on the computer when she received a phone call from Dave. What Kacie did not know was that Dave was 47, not 18. For several months, he had planned for this night, and even as he spoke with her on the phone, he stood right outside her home, holding a rag soaked with chloroform.

When Kacie’s brother returned home later that night and found her missing, he phoned his father, and soon a massive search and investigation began. Law enforcement authorities soon learned that “Dave Fagen” was actually David Fuller of La Mesa, Calif. They learned he had just flown to Arkansas, had rented a car and motel room, and two months earlier had come to Arkansas to rent a storage unit in nearby Conway. When they converged on the storage facility, they heard a gunshot. Inside they found the bodies of Kacie and of Fuller, who had shot himself.

The story of Kacie Woody, which was featured on “FamilyLife Today” by her father Rick is a warning to any parent with a child who uses the Internet. In only 10 years, this new medium has transformed our culture—making it possible for us to enjoy access to an unprecedented amount of information. But the Internet is also dark and dangerous, and many parents fail to take adequate precautions to protect their children.

Online predators are just one danger the Internet poses to your children. Pornography is now more pervasive and accessible than at any other time in history. The porn industry employs some of the best and brightest individuals to find new ways to tempt you. Through e-mails, pop-up ads, and much more, they make images and video literally a click away.

It is critical for parents to take this threat seriously, and to take initiative in establishing boundaries and protection for their family. Here are some steps you need to take:

1. Assume responsibility and authority for computer use in your home.

In their book, Parenting Today’s Adolescent, Dennis and Barbara Rainey urge parents to adopt the conviction that they have the responsibility and right to monitor and set limits for all media usage in the home—including music, television, movies, books, magazines, and Internet. As long as your children are living in your home, you are in charge. Be honest with your children about why you are assuming this responsibility—not only are you protecting their innocence by setting limits on what they can view, hear, or read, but you also are protecting them from real dangers posed by online predators.

As part of this responsibility, let your children know there is no absolute right to privacy in your family. Part of being involved in your lives of your children is knowing what they are doing, and that means being ready to search their room or computer. Let them know that you will be periodically checking to see what they’ve been viewing on the Internet. The dangers are too great to simply allow a child too much freedom.

If teens are concerned about siblings seeing their e-mail or changing their schoolwork, user passwords can be used. But you should maintain the master list of passwords and let your children know that you may monitor what they do at any time. There should be no secrets on the computer.

Another way to exert your authority in this area is to establish a rule that children cannot access the Internet without permission from a parent. Before granting permission, ask your children what online sites they want to visit.

2. Place your computer in an area with high traffic.

Many parents make the mistake of allowing a child to use a computer behind closed doors. It’s much more difficult to look at questionable material if anyone can see what you’re up to at any time!

Put your computer in a location in your home where anyone in the room can see the screen from any angle. You should not have to walk around a piece of furniture to see the screen. Even someone hurrying through the room should be able to glance at the screen and see what is being viewed. In our home, for example, our family computer with Internet is in a small hallway that has traffic from three directions. This provides instant accountability as people move through the house.

If you do put the computer in an office or in a child’s room, the monitor should face the doorway. Require a child to keep the door open while on the Internet. If necessary, a parent could quietly come to the door and look at the screen. With the monitor facing the doorway and the user with his back to the door, there can be no sure way of secrecy.

If you need to change the location of a present computer, you might call a family conference and discuss the relocation, getting input from everyone in your family. If you are about to purchase a computer, discuss the location beforehand. You may need to purchase a computer desk and rearrange the furniture in a room, but the responsibility to protect our children has never been greater.

3. Install and maintain protection programs and software for your computer.

This can be a challenge for technically-challenged parents who feel intimidated and overwhelmed by the very thought of understanding parental controls or installing new software. The problem is that many of these parents don’t even make an attempt, and therefore leave their children wide open to the dangers of the Internet.

The first step is activating the security protocols of your browser or Internet provider. America Online, for example, allows parents to set a filter level for each computer user. It also allows each user to deter any e-mail messages from sources you have not personally chosen. You can learn how to use programs like this by using the “Help” menu. If you are not able to figure it out, call or ask online for technical assistance.

In addition, install “filter” and “firewall” programs. A filter program prevents anyone from accessing certain types of sites, and firewall software helps prevent unwanted and unsolicited access to your computer. I installed a firewall program about a year ago, and was amazed at how frequently I received a warning message that told me that outside access to my computer was prevented. If I was online ten minutes or more, I usually received a minimum of three warnings.

A simple search on the Internet will give you many software options to choose from-you can download simple versions or purchase full programs. Some software offers both filtering and firewall protection. Your local computer store will also have many suggestions, and you also will find related links at the bottom of this article.

4. Monitor the activity on your computer.

This suggestion may seem a little daunting at first, but rest assured, you can do it. All you need to do is spend a little time becoming familiar with the different ways you can learn what websites your children are viewing. It is as easy as the click of the mouse.

The first step is to find the function on your web browser that allows you to look at websites that were accessed recently on your computer. In Internet Explorer this is called the “History” function. This will show you every website accessed from your computer for up to 99 days.

The second step is to look within Windows for a record of the “cookies” on your computer. When you visit a website, it may drop a file onto your computer that records information about your system and enables your computer to connect with that same website more quickly in the future. Most cookies are harmless, but sometimes they can be troublesome. At one time, pornographers used active cookies to provide a link between computers and their sites through popup ads. A good filtering program can now block most of these cookies.

If you think you need more information about what is being done on your computer, then keystroke tracking programs are available. A tracking program will allow you to monitor, record, and prove what any and all individuals are doing on your computer. This is like forensic evidence to a crime scene investigator. You can monitor and control what happens in your home and on your computer.

These programs install on your computer and work in the background so that no one knows they are running. A tracking program can record everything from images being viewed to keystrokes that would define names, searches, or web addresses. This is especially useful if someone in your family is adept at using the computer, and you suspect they are hiding something from you.

5. Avoid chat rooms.

You can find chat rooms that are dedicated to adults, girls, boys, singles, teens, kids, gays, games, music, or any other topic you can imagine. Children and teens enjoy chat rooms. They can talk—write—to one another and meet new friends.

But a chat room may be the most dangerous place a child can visit on the Internet. Chat rooms might be the Internet equivalent of nightclubs for teens. There is little or no adult supervision, and little or no control of the content. Chat rooms have become a place to cruise for friends, partners, or victims. And rarely do people tell the truth about who they are.

In a brief visit to a teen and kids chat room recently, I read some of the worst comments I have ever seen or heard from the mouths (minds) of young people. It was appalling; I was astonished at the language and invitations I read.

Many of these online sexual predators visit and interact with the teens or kids in chat rooms. A predator is masterful at winning the trust of a child. He poses as a teenager, and masters the art of playing on a child’s sense of fairness or emotional sensitivity. He suggests they switch to instant messaging, where they communicate privately. He may send obscene photos or, using a video connection, expose himself. Or he may avoid that type of blatant behavior, and instead develop a relationship over weeks or months of online conversation. He may ask for a phone number so they can talk, or he may suggest that they meet each other in person. He may even send airline tickets to the child. Often the parents are totally ignorant of what has been going on for months.

Perhaps the best suggestion here is to forbid the use of chat rooms altogether. If you don’t want to adopt the same rule, be there with your child as he or she interacts in a chat room. If something is said that is offensive, then you can end the connection.

6. Talk frankly to your children about the dangers on the Internet and establish boundaries.

Talk to them about why pornography is harmful. Have them listen to the “FamilyLife Today” shows about Kacie Woody so they understand the threat of online predators.

The FBI’s “Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety” instructs parents to establish the following rules for the Internet:
• Never arrange a face-to-face meeting with someone they met online
• Never upload (post) pictures of themselves onto the Internet or online service to people they do not personally know
• Never give out identifying information such as their name, home address, school name, or telephone number
• Never download pictures from an unknown source, as there is a good chance there could be sexually explicit images
• Never respond to messages or bulletin board postings that are suggestive, obscene, belligerent, or harassing
• Remember that whatever they are told online may or may not be true.

7. Teach your family to always avoid anything that looks suspicious.

The exhortation of 2 Timothy 2:22 is appropriate here: “Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”

Every person in your family must develop the discipline of staying away from any e-mail, chat room, bulletin board posting, pop-up advertisement, or web link that looks tempting or dangerous.

Pornography has never been as prevalent or so easy to access. If you are not using any type of filtering program for your e-mail, you may receive dozens of e-mails that put you one simple click away from pornographic photos and videos. Even if you are using such a program, some of these e-mails still slip through. If these are tempting to you, imagine how they appear to a teenage boy. Make it a goal to hit your “delete” button so often that it becomes worn from use.

Remember that teenagers lack wisdom and experience; they need your involvement. Even when warned of online dangers, they tend to think, “It can’t happen to me.” But as Rick Woody says in the aftermath of losing his daughter, “A story like Kacie’s helps people realize the threat is real—and it can happen to anybody.”

Helpful Links:

Internet safety tips:

www.safekids.com/guidelines-for-parents/

www.safeteens.com

www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/parent-guide

Firewall:

www.zonealarm.com/

Filters:

www.afo.net/filtering

Tracking:

www.spyarsenal.com

Taken from the October 2004 issue of The Family Room, FamilyLife’s online magazine. www.FamilyLife.com/familyroom Copyright© 2003. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

About the authors:

Mike Pickle and David Boehi are content specialists at FamilyLife. David is a senior editor at FamilyLife. He has written one book, I Still Do: Stories of Lifelong Love and Marriage, and co-authored two others. David and his wife, Merry, have two daughters. Mike has been at FamilyLife since 1999 and served in church ministry for 20 years before joining Campus Crusade for Christ staff in 1996. He and his wife, Gini, have six children.