Internet safety night advises parents to stay involved

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 | 11:07 p.m. CDT; updated 1:07 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Getting involved in their children’s lives is the best thing parents can do to protect them from the dangers of the Internet, panelists agreed at the Internet safety night hosted by Columbia Public Schools on Wednesday.

“The number one thing you can do to protect your kids is every day of their life, hug them,” said Detective Andy Anderson of Mid-Missouri Internet Crimes Task Force. “Because the one day when they think things aren’t so great, someone can exploit them.”

The presentation by James Finch, assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division, and the following panel discussion at Lange Middle School could be viewed in streaming video online or at about 50 remote video feed locations nationwide.

“The Internet works the same for everyone. It works the same for people in Columbia, Missouri, as it does for people in Los Angeles, California, the same for Chicago, Illinois, and the same for New York City,” Finch said. “It is just as important to the city of Columbia as it is to all of those other cities.”

Finch offered viewers a dialogue that parents could use for talking to their children about the Internet. He said he didn’t mean for it to be a template but that he wanted to enhance awareness about the available safety features and the dangers waiting on the Internet.

Finch said Internet safety should be important to parents for one reason: “It’s what our children have adopted as their primary platform of communication.”

After Finch’s keynote address, he joined a panel to answer questions from viewers. Anderson, one of the panelists, offered insight into the problems facing Columbia through statistics from a 2005 study that surveyed 13- and 14-year-olds.

In the study, “31 percent of the girls had been contacted by a stranger online to engage in sexually explicit activity or chat,” Anderson said. The percentage of girls encountering these advances has begun to decrease, but Anderson said another serious problem is increasing — children having face-to-face meetings with people they meet online.

“Even if they think the person that they’re meeting online is their age, it’s never for sure,” Anderson said.

Anderson and other panelists advocated for parents learning as much as possible about how the Internet works, as well as maintaining an open dialogue with children using the Internet.

During the forum, questions covered topics including the prevention of identity theft and the prosecution of cyber bullying. In addition to Anderson and Finch, the panelists were Lt. Joe Laramie of the Missouri Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force; Chris Pickering, chief investigator at the Missouri Attorney General’s Office; Jeffrey Valenti, assistant U.S. attorney in Kansas City and chief of the Western District’s Computer Crime and Exploitation Unit; and Scott Stringer of Charter Communications’ Cyber Security Division.

Each panelist offered answers on their area of expertise, but the final advice the panel offered centered on parental involvement.

“Talk to your children,” Finch said. “Because if you don’t, they will find someone out there to talk to.”

People with more questions for the panel can e-mail for more information.

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