July 05, 2020
Column

Monitoring cyberspace new concern

At the very least, the Rep. Mark Foley scandal might have convinced some parents that they should not let their babies grow up to be pages.

For many other parents, however, the recent discovery that Foley sent sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage congressional pages was further evidence – as if any more were needed – of just how vulnerable their children really are to the come-ons of predators lurking in cyberspace and of the need to better monitor online activity at home.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that in the two weeks since Foley’s folly was uncovered, sales of services that allow parents to more closely track their kids’ computer use has seen double-digit growth for some of the companies that provide the cutting-edge sleuthing software.

While the programs aren’t cheap, an increasing number of parents feel sufficiently freaked out by the steady stream of news stories about Internet-generated child abductions and sexual assaults that they’re shelling out the money for software that goes beyond those free online tools that prevent children from accessing Web sites that contain objectionable material.

Sales are soaring for programs, for instance, that not only allow parents to keep track of what Web sites their kids are visiting, but what’s in the e-mails and instant messages they send and receive all day long.

One maker of software programs that allow parents to block Web sites, monitor their children’s computers in real time and even receive electronic alerts when their kids type certain keywords or phrases reported a 10 percent increase in sales in the last couple of weeks.

A growing number of wary parents are also putting out $20 a month for a service that will search the most popular social networking sites, like MySpace, for their children’s names and e-mail addresses and alert subscribers online when they find matches.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven 10- to 17-year-olds who use the Internet have received some form of sexual solicitation online.

If those numbers are correct, parents certainly do have plenty to worry about.

Yet while the red-hot software sales figures would seem to suggest that the majority of parents know enough about the Internet’s dark side to feel obligated to protect – or overprotect, some would say – their children against it, that’s not necessarily the case.

As the WSJ pointed out, only about 32 percent of parents who have teens at home have installed any form of controls on their computers.

The rest of the parents, presumably, are either content to let their children navigate cyberspace by themselves and trust that their good judgment will keep them from harm, or simply have no idea at all of the potential dangers their kids confront whenever they log on.

As for the latter group, I am reminded of an interview I did recently with the Bangor Police Department’s longtime D.A.R.E. officer about a study showing that parents’ naive perceptions of what goes on at a typical teenage party is at odds with the boozy reality.

Dan Frazell, who travels the country to speak to parents groups about the unsavory influences of the media and the Internet on youngsters, said he is constantly amazed at how ignorant many parents still are about the technology-driven world their kids inhabit.

“I watch the faces of the parents and see the shock and disgust,” he said. “They seem totally stunned by what goes on with computers these days, as if they had no idea whatsoever about the trouble kids can get into on sites like MySpace. The parents don’t want to believe that predators exist out there, but they do. They’re everywhere, and these wackos could be reading revealing things about their own daughters.”

Or their own sons, of course.

Yes, children should be forgiven some of their innocence about technology’s sinister side. Their parents, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury.


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