Pediatric Annals

Internet Poses Multiple Risks to Children and Adolescents

Maria D McColgan, MD, MSED; Angelo P Giardino, MD, PhD

Abstract

Children and families have ever-expanding access to vast amounts of information and are exposed to an increasing array of electronic media.1"3 Microchips, high-speed cable connections, and e-mail continue to revolutionize the sharing of information, creating a truly global community. The "information age" affects children who are comfortable with many forms of electronic media and face a world increasingly driven by technology.1 The typical American child has the equivalent of a full time job "watching television, playing video games, listening to music, and surfing the Internet."4

In 1999, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported on a nationally representative sample of 3,000 children ages 2 to 18 and found the typical American child spends 38 hours per week, nearly 5 hours per day, using electronic media.4 The survey found the most commonly used form of electronic medium remains the television, with children spending an average of 2 hours each day watching television.

The computer is beginning to gain ground, however. According to Roper Reports and the Current Population Survey from 1999,5 computers can be found in 71% of households in the United States that include children ages 8 to 17. An Internet connection is available in 67% of those households. Even for those families who do not own a personal computer, access remains easy. Children have access to computers at school, where the computer may be both part of the curriculum and a teaching aid.2,3'6 School and public libraries also contain personal computers, often used as research tools and as a portal to access the World Wide Web via the Internet.

The school setting increasingly is seen as the "equalizer" in terms of socioeconomic status and access to the computer and the Internet.6 The National School Boards Foundation (NSBF) discussed research and guidelines surrounding children's use of the Internet and stated explicitly that schools have the opportunity to help narrow the gap between the "haves and have nots."6 Specifically, the NSBF found that in families earning less than $40,000, 76% of 9- to 17year-old students who used the Internet had "logged on" from school, compared with 68% of children from the wealthiest families and 54% of children from middle-income families. Additionally, in African American families, 80% of 9- to 17 -year-old students log onto the Internet from school and only 16% log on from home.6

Computers and the Internet are rapidly becoming a part of everyone's daily Ufe.3 Millions of people around the world access the Internet and go online each day. The US Department of Commerce, in its 2002 report "A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet,"3 found growing use of information technologies across all demographic groups and within all geographic areas:

* Internet use in the United States increases by at least 2 million users per month.

* As of September 2001, 143 million Americans, or approximately 54% of the population, were using the Internet, an increase of 26 million people in a 13-month period.

* As of September 2001, 174 million Americans, or approximately 66% of the population, used computers.

* Ninety percent of children ages 5 to 17, or 48 million children, use computers.

* Seventy-five percent of children ages 14 to 17 and 65% of children ages 10 to 13 use the Internet.

However, the increasing use of computer technology by children is not without risk to children and families alike.

RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH INTERNET USE

Today, the Internet is widely considered a critical component of a child's education but also gives children access to content of questionable value.5 Like any gathering place for children, the Internet provides an excellent (virtual) forum for…

Children and families have ever-expanding access to vast amounts of information and are exposed to an increasing array of electronic media.1"3 Microchips, high-speed cable connections, and e-mail continue to revolutionize the sharing of information, creating a truly global community. The "information age" affects children who are comfortable with many forms of electronic media and face a world increasingly driven by technology.1 The typical American child has the equivalent of a full time job "watching television, playing video games, listening to music, and surfing the Internet."4

In 1999, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported on a nationally representative sample of 3,000 children ages 2 to 18 and found the typical American child spends 38 hours per week, nearly 5 hours per day, using electronic media.4 The survey found the most commonly used form of electronic medium remains the television, with children spending an average of 2 hours each day watching television.

The computer is beginning to gain ground, however. According to Roper Reports and the Current Population Survey from 1999,5 computers can be found in 71% of households in the United States that include children ages 8 to 17. An Internet connection is available in 67% of those households. Even for those families who do not own a personal computer, access remains easy. Children have access to computers at school, where the computer may be both part of the curriculum and a teaching aid.2,3'6 School and public libraries also contain personal computers, often used as research tools and as a portal to access the World Wide Web via the Internet.

The school setting increasingly is seen as the "equalizer" in terms of socioeconomic status and access to the computer and the Internet.6 The National School Boards Foundation (NSBF) discussed research and guidelines surrounding children's use of the Internet and stated explicitly that schools have the opportunity to help narrow the gap between the "haves and have nots."6 Specifically, the NSBF found that in families earning less than $40,000, 76% of 9- to 17year-old students who used the Internet had "logged on" from school, compared with 68% of children from the wealthiest families and 54% of children from middle-income families. Additionally, in African American families, 80% of 9- to 17 -year-old students log onto the Internet from school and only 16% log on from home.6

Computers and the Internet are rapidly becoming a part of everyone's daily Ufe.3 Millions of people around the world access the Internet and go online each day. The US Department of Commerce, in its 2002 report "A Nation Online: How Americans Are Expanding Their Use of the Internet,"3 found growing use of information technologies across all demographic groups and within all geographic areas:

* Internet use in the United States increases by at least 2 million users per month.

* As of September 2001, 143 million Americans, or approximately 54% of the population, were using the Internet, an increase of 26 million people in a 13-month period.

* As of September 2001, 174 million Americans, or approximately 66% of the population, used computers.

* Ninety percent of children ages 5 to 17, or 48 million children, use computers.

* Seventy-five percent of children ages 14 to 17 and 65% of children ages 10 to 13 use the Internet.

However, the increasing use of computer technology by children is not without risk to children and families alike.

RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH INTERNET USE

Today, the Internet is widely considered a critical component of a child's education but also gives children access to content of questionable value.5 Like any gathering place for children, the Internet provides an excellent (virtual) forum for exploitation.78 The major risks facing children on the Internet are given in Sidebar I.9

A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania5 noted that in 2000, 7 1 % of parents agreed with the statement, "I am concerned that my children might view sexually explicit images on the Internet." In 1998, 76% of parents agreed. The survey also found that in 2000, 5 1% of parents believed that "families who spend a lot of time online talk to each other less than they otherwise would," compared with 48% in 1998. In addition, in 2000, 62% expressed concern that their children might view violent images on the Internet. This question was not included in the 1998 survey.

The Pew Internet tracking report found that Americans were deeply worried about criminal activity on the Internet, with 92% of Americans saying they are concerned about child pornography on the Internet, 50% said it was the most heinous crime that occurs on the Internet.10 Additionally, in "A Nation Online," 68% of survey respondents said they were more concerned about their children's exposure to material on the Internet than to material on television.3 A lower number, 26%, were equally concerned about the material that children would be exposed to on either the Internet or television. In the NSB F' s "Safe and Smart" report, the three top concerns for parents dealing with children using the Internet were that the children would encounter pornography, undesirable adults, or exposure to violent or hateful content.6

The ability to supervise children using the computer and the Internet is of concern because the comfort level of parents navigating the Internet varies. Thirty-one percent of parents believe themselves to be advanced users or experts, 44% place themselves at an intermediate level, and 25% classify themselves as beginners.5 For computer use and access to the Internet, the Kaiser study reported that 69% of children had a computer at home, with 45% having Internet access available from home.2 Among children with an average age of 8, 21% reported having a computer in their bedroom.

Further, even though 67% of parents said someone else was in the room when their children were accessing the Internet and 65% of parents said their teenagers use the Internet alone,6 78% of teenagers between ages 13 and 17 reported using the Internet alone. When asked if parents should serve as watchdogs or content guides for their children's Internet use at home, 67% of parents agreed that being a "guide to good content" was the most important parental role, while 24% agreed that being a "watchdog" was the most important role.6

The law enforcement community and technology providers are developing strategies to keep children safe while using the Internet. These remedies range from the development of more sophisticated filtering software that provides stricter parental controls to new laws addressing the investigation and prosecution of child exploiters.11"14 The best course of prevention, however, is to teach parents about the risks their children face when they venture into cyberspace.15

Although the Internet and computers have dangers, the benefits of their use seems to far outweigh the risks.6,7 Restricting access to computers is unrealistic and analogous to asking teenagers not to engage in athletics because injuries might occur. As with all activities and technological advances, parents, teachers, and other caregivers must be aware of the risks and take commonsense steps to protect children. What is most important is to recognize the dangers and know what to do when encountering these dangers.

SPECIFIC RISKS

Unfortunately, some of the more than 77 million people accessing the Internet do so for inappropriate or illegal reasons.3,9,11 Some will "disguise" themselves and use chat rooms, bulletin boards, or instant messaging services to communicate with a child and inappropriately gain his or her confidence. In a nationally representative sample of 1,501 children and teenagers between ages 10 and 17 who used the Internet regularly, 19% were the targets of unwanted solicitation during a 1-year period.12'13 The highest risk were for girls, older teenagers, those having problems of one type or another (troubled youth), those using the Internet more frequently, those participating in chat room discussions, and those communicating with strangers online.

Not surprisingly, 25% of the children and teenagers solicited reported high levels of stress after the solicitation incident. The highest risk for distress was seen in younger children (ages 10 to 13), those solicited while using a computer away from home, and those receiving aggressive solicitations defined as the solicitor attempting to make offline contact. Only 10% of the solicitations were reported to the police, internet service provider (ISP), or other official. More than two-thirds of the parents and more than three-quarters of the children and teens did not know where they could report the incidents.12'13

In the full report detailing this study, the investigators provided the following details regarding the unwanted solicitation:12

* Based on interviews, many of the sexual solicitations were propositions for "cybersex," a form of fantasy sex via an interactive chat-room session in which participants describe sexual activity and sometimes disrobe and masturbate.

* In 70% of solicitations the youths were at home, and in 22% they were at someone else's house.

* In 65% of solicitations, chat rooms were involved; 24% involved instant messages.

* In 10% of solicitations, defined as "aggressive," the perpetrator asked to meet somewhere; in 6% contact was made via regular mail; in 2% contact was made via telephone; and in 1% money and gifts were given.

In the reactions to these solicitations, 75% of the children and teenagers had no or only minor reactions, saying that they were not very upset or afraid after the solicitation. In 17% of the incidents, the children were very or extremely embarrassed. Looking specifically at the aggressive solicitations, 36% of the children and teenagers were very or extremely upset, 32% were very or extremely embarrassed, and 25% were very or extremely afraid.12

This study also explored unwanted exposures to sexual material, defined as pictorial images of naked people or people having sex.12 Among the 1,501 children and teenagers between ages 1 0 and 17 who used the Internet regularly, 25% reported at least one unwanted exposure to sexual material in the previous year. Ninety-four percent of the exposures were images of naked people, 38% showed people having sex, and 8% involved violence in addition to the sexual content. The route to the unwanted material came as a result of searches 47% of the time, misspelled addresses in 17%, and links within a Web site in another 17%.12

Thirty-nine percent of the children and teenagers told their parents; they told no one in 44% of the incidents. Twenty-three percent of the children and teenagers reported that the exposure was very or extremely upsetting, and 20% were very or extremely embarrassed.

Finally, the study explored the level of parental supervision of their children's Internet activities among the 1,033 households that had home Internet access.10 Ninety-seven percent responded that they looked at the screen to see what the child or teenager was doing. In addition, 85% talked to the youth concerning being careful about chatting with strangers on the Internet, 83% talked about giving addresses or telephone numbers to people on the Internet, 83% talked about going to X-rated Web sites, 80% reported rules about dos and don'ts while using the Internet, 77% talked with youth about talking online about personal things, 73% talked about trying to meet people the children or teenagers had gotten to know on the Internet, and 72% had talked about responding to nasty or mean messages.

Sixty-three percent of the parents checked the history function of the computer to see what sites the youth had visited, 48% checked files and diskettes, 44% made the youth ask for permission to go on the Internet, and 39% reported rules about the number of hours the youth could spend on the Internet. Finally, 69% of parents did not know of a place to report troublesome Internet episodes; an additional 20% had heard of a place to report but were unable to remember the name. Only 10% could name a specific name or authority.12

RISKS RELATED TO CONTENT

The Internet provides ease and anonymity, which is appealing when seeking advice on sensitive topics.16,17 However, dangerous or erroneous content on Web sites can be another major risk to children and adolescents with Internet access.

Health-related Web sites can pose particular dangers. When faced with a question about their health, in excess of 93 million people (80% of adult Internet users) turn to the Internet for health information.14 Approximately 50% to 75% of children and adolescents with Internet access use the Internet for health related information.18"20 A simple search on "health" using a major search engine will yield millions of websites that disseminate health information.

In one study, 49% of tenth graders had used the Internet to access healthrelated information.20 The Pew Foundation found those ages 15 to 17 are significantly more likely to have looked up health information (32%) than those ages 12 to 14 (18%).21 The 2001 Kaiser survey of adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 24 found 75% had used the Internet at least once to research health related topics and 39% had changed their personal behavior because of health information they found online.19 Adolescents most frequently explored specific diseases such as cancer and diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), diet, fitness, exercise, and sexual behaviors.18"20 Adolescent females also were interested in birth control, physical and sexual abuse, and violence.20

Accessing appropriate and correct health-related information on the Internet is an area of concern for many health experts. In a study observing 68 adolescent health related searches, only 69% of the searches successfully located correct and useful answers.17 Furthermore, the adolescents paid little or no attention to the source of the answer to health-related searches. In the vast majority of cases, once an answer was located, it was simply assumed to be correct.

Specific health-related topics are discussed below, but physicians and parents should be aware that children, especially teenagers, will look to the Internet for information on topics from acne and obesity to sexuality and drugs. Skinner18 reports three emerging roles for the practitioner: "(1) providing an interface for adolescents with technology and assisting them in finding pertinent information sources; (2) enhancing connection to youths by extending ways and times when practitioners are available; and (3) fostering critical appraisal skills among youths for evaluating the quality of health information."

Illegal Drugs and Raves

In 2002, 21% of tenth graders, 25% of twelfth graders, and 10% of eighth graders reported illicit drug use within the previous 30 days.22 In a study of young adult users of ecstasy, about half used the Internet to find information about the drug, with younger users more likely to do so.23 Information on recreational drug use is widely available via the Internet, which facilitates the free and easy exchange of ideas, opinions, and unedited and nonreferenced information about recreational drugs.24

Common search engines easily can find many websites that offer information on particular drugs' effects, drug dosing, addiction, drug mixing, and detection times for drug tests. Other sites provide tips such as how to "avoid a bad trip." One particular site offers tips on the use of ecstasy and even provides ratings on different types of pills. This site also recommends having "a reliable dealer" to prevent the purchase of bad pills.

Other sites offer information on how to make illegal drugs at home. Recipes for methamphetamines, ecstasy and other drugs are readily available on the Internet. Children also can arrange to purchase drugs illegally via the Internet.

Many of the illegal drugs are considered "club drugs" and are used widely at teen dance parties called "raves." An online rave community, which is well aware of the use of drugs at raves, provides information regarding raves, including online discussions and party reviews.25

Some harm-reduction websites, such as http://www.dancesafe.org and http:// www.ravesafe.org, try to make attending a rave as safe as possible. However, these sites provide information on specific drugs, their ingrethents, their effects, and potential dangers.25 These sites were visited four times more frequently than government-sponsored websites.23

Eating Disorders

Sixty-three percent of adolescents search the Internet for information on body image and nutrition.18 As with any other health related topic, a search of "anorexia" or "bulimia" will result in hundreds of sites that offer information on these eating disorders, as well as resources for getting help. However, change the topic to "pro-ana" (pro-anorexia) or "pro-mia" (pro-bulimia), and the search will result in an underground network of anorexics and bulimics who share information on how to be a "better" anorexic or bulimic.18 While the disclaimers clearly state that the sites are not intended for those who are not anorectic, the disclaimers add allure and mystery to those who visit the sites. These sites are particularly dangerous for teenagers, as 86% of persons with eating disorders report the onset of illness before age 20.26

Once the site is entered, the sites focus on striving for perfection and attaining self-control. The authors of the sites often view themselves as an elite group who demonstrate power by exerting selfcontrol over their bodies. In July 2001, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders became aware of these sites and actively campaigned for the removal of the sites. Many servers have agreed to remove these sites, but many still remain active.27

Sexuality, Puberty, and STDs

In the 2001 Pew Foundation report, 18% of online youth said they have looked online for sensitive information, and more than a quarter of all online teens (26%) think the Internet is helpful in this regard.21 Up to 84 % of adolescents reported they most frequently use the Internet for sexual information, including sexual activities, birth control, pregnancy, and STDs.18"20

Even with parental controls, children can access a variety of sexually related content, including information on birth control and STDs as well as descriptions of how to perform sexual activities. Teens also can share information in chat rooms, on message board, and through online journal services, which can potentially lead to widespread sharing of erroneous information and myths. In one study, young adults who meet sexual partners online may be at greater risk for STDs than their counterparts who do not seek sex online.28

Suicide and the Internet

Using the keyword "suicide" on a major search engine can yield more than 17 million Web sites results. Typing a more specific phrase, "how to commit suicide," returned more than 9,000 sites. Many of these sites seem to condone suicide and may discourage those who visit the site from seeking help.29

One 14-year-old child researched various methods of suicide and poisonous plants online. He died after ingesting poisonous plants he found in his parents' garden.30 Another 20-year-old man reported learning his methods of attempted suicide via the Internet.31

Chat rooms and other means of meeting strangers online anonymously have reportedly been linked to suicides. A 25year-old woman, after recovering from an attempted suicide, reported Internet contact with a person who encouraged the girl to commit suicide. The person who was encouraging the girl to commit suicide turned out to be a 33-year-old woman who was fascinated with psychology and parapsychology.32 Suicide pacts via the Internet also have been reported.33

Dangerous or Illegal Activity

Incredibly, for almost any illegal activity one can think of, there are websites with instructions on how to commit the crime. Sites are available on everything from how to become a computer hacker to how to commit murder. A search of the phrase "how to make a gun" provides sites on how to make a tattoo gun, a stun gun, gunpowder, fireworks, and other explosives, as well as how to make any gun silent. A child can arrange to purchase weapons illegally via the Internet.

A child also can learn to be a computer hacker simply by searching for "how to" sites with instructions. Children can learn how to send computer viruses via the Internet, which is illegal. A search for "how to kill someone" provides numerous sites with detailed information on whom to kill, the weaknesses of the human body, and how to carry out the act.

Hate Crimes

The federal government defines a hate crime as "a crime in which the defendant selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person."34 According to Partners Against Hate, 33% of all known hate crime offenders are younger than 18; another 29% are ages 18 to 24. Thirty-one percent of all violent crime offenders and 46% of the property offenders are younger than 18, while 30% of all victims of bias-motivated aggravated assaults and 34% of the victims of simple assault are younger than 18.35

The Internet provides a means for people to openly or anonymously perpetuate hate via mass e-mailings or Web sites. For example, in September 1996, a 21 -year-old expelled college student sent a threatening e-mail to 60 Asian students at the University of California Irvine. In the e-mail, the student expressed hatred for Asians, threatening to hunt down and kill all Asians on campus if they did not leave the university. The student signed the message "Asian Hater."35 Eventually, the student admitted that he sent the threatening message; he was charged with violating federal civil rights laws and later convicted.

Unfortunately, many websites with similar racial divides and messages of hate exist today and are protected under First Amendment free speech rights. Numerous sites tout such ideas as white power, Nazism, and black power.

FINANCIAL RISKS OF INTERNET USE

Websites that offer auctions or purchasing are becoming increasingly popular, with online shopping and bill paying growing the fastest in popularity.36 Fifty percent of online youth have made purchases online.19 Twenty percent of girls have been to trading or auction sites, compared with 42% of boys.21 Older teens with Internet access are somewhat more likely than younger teens (35% to 27%) to have visited such sites. Forty-six percent of boys ages 15 to 17 have been to such sites. Some 31% of teens have purchased goods online, compared with 51% of online adults who have done so.

Gambling websites also are becoming more popular and can be particularly alluring to children who are interested in winning money but do not understand the financial implications of gambling. These sites have obvious financial risks, as a credit card is needed for purchases or participation.

Additionally, many scams are conducted through the Internet. A credit card number or other personal information is requested and then used for illegal activity. One such type of scam, called "phishing," entails an e-mail that appears to be from a legitimate Web site and asks the recipient to click on a link in the e-mail to verify account information. If the recipient does so, the scam artists capture their personal or account information and use it for fraudulent purchases or other activities.

KEEPING CHILDREN SAFE ON THE INTERNET

Supervising Internet Use

Internet supervision use may follow the same concerning trends of unsuccessful supervising of other forms of electronic media. Parental supervision of children using other forms of electronic media has been limited, especially regarding television, the most common form of electronic media used by children of all ages. For example, the Kaiser study found that, among children 8 and older, parents watch television with their children just 5% of the time.2 One in four children in this age group spend more than 5 hours per day watching television. Approximately 65% of children in this age group have televisions in their bedrooms, and 61 % say that their parents have not set rules about television watching.

For younger children, the supervision of television watching is higher, with 19% of parents watching television with children ages 2 to 7. Children in this younger age group watch, on average, VA hours per day. One in three have televisions in their bedrooms.

Maintaining the safety of children and teens while using the Internet rests upon communication between parents or caregivers and children. However, parent-child conversations concerning privacy on the Internet and how not to divulge information inappropriately are lacking. Children and their parents do not necessarily hold the same attitudes or even recall the same discussions about the topic within the family. A study by Turow and Nir5 showed parent-child conversations about Internet privacy issues were limited to "don't give out your name" or "don't talk to strangers," leaving the child unprepared to deal with strategies such as bartering information for gifts or extending trust to a person without any factual data as to who that person really is. Further examples of discrepancies between parent and child perception of rules were demonstrated in the Pew study:21

* 61% of parents said they have rules about Internet use, while only 37% of teens reported being subject to any Internet time-use strictures.

* 61% of parents reported checking to see what Web sites their teens had visited after the child was online, while 27% of online teens believe they have been checked on.

* 68% of parents said they had sat with their children when they were online, while 48% of children recall such episodes.

* 45% of parents were concerned that the Internet leads young people to engage in dangerous or harmful activities, while 34% of children reported the same.

The Annenberg study revealed that almost half of US parents were not aware that Web sites gather information on their users without their knowledge.5 Most of the time, the personal information gathering is harmless or is used for marketing or statistical analysis. However, the criminal element is present on the Internet, and when the opportunity arises, criminal activity may take place.

To minimize the risks faced by children, general guidelines should be followed. A sample list of rules parents and caregivers should adopt regarding children and Internet usage is given in Sidebar 2 (see page 410).

Parents need to teach their children safe and responsible Internet use and should adopt family rules of Internet usage that are strictly adhered to. Parents may consider signing a contract with their children that outlines the rules of Internet use and the consequences of breaking the rules. A sample contract is provided in Sidebar 3 (see page 410), and a list of rales recommended by law enforcement agencies and other professionals is given in Sidebar 4 (see page 412).

Blocking Software

ISP and software manufacturers provide software to block children from accessing certain sites or to document what sites the computer's user has visited on the Internet ("blocking software").37 Parents should consider these tools when deciding how to best monitor their children's activities on the Internet. It is important to note, however, that blocking software is not infallible.

Essentially, three types of blocking are possible to filter out sites inappropriate for children: human analysis, software analysis and site labeling.38 Human analysis creates a customized list of sites that are permitted and prohibited. This approach, however, requires constant human review of new sites being created and ultimately is impractical. No matter how frequently these tools are updated, the number of websites that are published each day far exceeds the ability of software companies to review them and categorize them as acceptable or bad.39

Software analysis screens a site's content and filters out those with objectionable phrases or images. Applying rules around phrases and images contained within the site is not without its problems either. The biggest criticism has been that the filtering blocks out many legitimate sites because at times the context of the content maybe obscured.

Finally, site labeling relies on screening based on the voluntary labeling of web sites by their owners based on the Internet Content Rating System (ICRA). The major drawback is that many sites have not chosen label content and as a result are not blocked even though their content is objectionable. If the filter is set to block all unlabeled sites, then an inordinate number of legitimate sites end up blocked, which makes searching difficult. Blocking software must be used in conjunction with, not in the place of, parental supervision.

Reporting Suspicious Activity

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) is the federal agency in the United States that has taken the responsibility for receiving reports related to unwanted sexual solicitations and exposure to inappropriate material.40 The NCMEC wants to be alerted to the presence of any illegal material online, such as child pornography, threatening messages, or evidence of criminal action. Professionals and parents or caregivers can report such activity to the Center by calling the Cyber Tipline at 1-800-843-5678 (1-800The-Lost) or via the Web at http://www. cybertipline.com, a site that contains an easily completed online form.40

The ISP also should be alerted to any type of questionable activity on their sites. Reputable ISPs routinely police their sites and are mandated in the US to report child pornography and crimes against children to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the US Customs Service.

To combat the increasing use of the Internet by pomographers and sex offenders, the FBI, as part of its Cyber Crimes Program, created the Innocent Images National Initiative (???), an intelligence-driven, proactive, multiagency investigative initiative designed to fight computer proliferation of child sexual exploitation.41 The IINL, through its capacity for centralized coordination and its ability to analyze information that may be national or international, provides unprecedented coordination for local and state agencies, FBI field offices, and international agencies and governments.

Additionally, agents from Operation Predator work with NCMEC to process the information received from Cyber Tipline reports. These and other federal agents are trained in investigation over the Internet, including the tracking of offenders. Sometimes in conjunction with state and local law enforcement agencies, they cruise the Internet pretending to be children, searching the same chat rooms and Web sites that attract child sexual offenders and seeking to engage the child sexual offender in conversation. Following strict legal protocol, to avoid the legal defense of entrapment, they converse with individuals through the grooming process, including the transmission of child pornographic images, until the child sexual offender wants to set up a meeting. The agents, in conjunction with state or local authorities, await the child sexual offender at the prearranged meeting place and arrest him. Federal agents also provide information to state or local authorities concerning child pornography or similar crimes and cooperate with those state or local agencies to investigate and arrest child sexual offenders.

Some very valuable educational programs and resource materials have been developed to help parents and professionals keep children safe while using the Internet. The FBI's Crimes Against Children Program has published A Parent's Guide to Internet Safety, which is available online at http://www.fbi.gov/ publications/pguide/pguidee.htm. 15 This resource provides parents with brief but useful information on signs that children might be at risk while online, steps to take if a parent suspects that a child might be communicating with a sexual predator online, what can be done to minimize the risk of online victimization, and answers to several frequently asked questions about using the Internet.42

In addition, Lawrence J. Magid, a syndicated columnist and host of http:// www.safekids.com and http://www.safe teens.com, working with the NCMEC and a professional educators' organization called The MASTER Teacher, has produced Teen Safety on the Information Highway, which is oriented to the adolescent user of the Internet.42 This brochure clearly speaks to teenagers about the general risk of the Internet; specific areas of risk related to using the Web, chat rooms, instant messaging, email, peer-to-peer (P2P) systems, newsgroups, forums, and bulletin boards; making parents aware of the Internet and its value and risks; and providing some basic rules of online safety.

For younger children as well as teenagers (ages 5 to 17), the NCMEC has created an online program called the NetSmartz Workshop, which uses original, animated characters with ageappropriate Internet lessons.43 The Web site includes a section for parents and educators that provides caregivers, law enforcement professionals, and youth organizations with relevant information on Internet safety.

SUMMARY

Computers and Internet usage, whether by children at home or at public places such as schools and libraries, are here to stay. Tremendous benefits in terms of educational opportunities, communication, and recreation can be expected. With all the benefits that such information technology provides, however, there is an element of risk that should not inhibit its use but must be attended to and managed.

The methods child sexual offenders use to pursue their criminal interests will continue to evolve as technology evolves. The first and most important line of defense calls for parents and other caregivers to remain directly responsible for the safety of the children in their care. Parents, teachers, healthcare providers, and other caregivers need to learn continually about the Internet and remain aware of how best to protect children who use the computer and the Internet.

Law enforcement agencies must also continue to prepare for advances in computer technology, to better anticipate the behavior of child sexual offenders, and to investigate and prosecute offenders. All law enforcement, medical, and social services personnel who have contact with children on a regular basis must continue to educate children and their parents or guardians about the dangers posed by the Internet. After a child is victimized, law enforcement, medical, and social services personnel also must remain cognizant that the victim's computer may contain evidence that may help identify and prosecute the offender. In short, all those charged with the protection of children and the prosecution of child sexual offenders must continue to adapt to our ever-evolving computer technology.

REFERENCES

1. Cole JI, Suman M, Schramm P, et al. The UCLA Internet Report: Surveying the Digital Future Year Three. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Los Angeles Center for Communication Policy; 2003: 1-86.

2. Roberts DF, Foehr UG, Rideout VJ, Brodie M. Kids & Media @ The New Millennium: A Comprehensive National Analysis of Children's Media Use. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. November 1999:1-83.

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