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Keeping children safe while surfing the web

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Not unlike many others at Mountain Home Air Force Base, the 366th Fighter Wing staff judge advocate is deployed. I am a reservist called to active duty to lead the Legal Office through the beginning of these summer months. So, not unlike many of you, we have prepared for time away from our families. To help ease your mind during separations, the legal office encourages you to update your will and make sure your estate is in order. Our office is available for legal assistance to assist with these matters, so please take advantage of our services.

But I would like to comment on a different, darker aspect of taking care of your family in your absence through these summer months. With school out, more children have more time for unsupervised access to the internet and friends. The Roper Survey conducted in 1999 surveyed 500 homes with children between the ages of 8 and 18 and found that 48 percent of homes allowed internet use every day. In those 500 homes, 20 percent of the parents didn't supervise their children's internet use at all while 52 percent of the homes claimed to moderately supervise access. More interestingly, 71 percent of parents revealed they had stopped monitoring internet access altogether for children 14 years or older.

According to Gary Raney, the Ada County Sheriff, research shows more than a third of all elementary and high school students have had someone say something embarrassing or threatening to them through e-mail or text message. Unfortunately, the fear of having the cell phone or computer taken away keeps many of those children from ever telling a parent about the incident.

In the 10 years since the Roper Survey there has been a dramatic increase in Ipods, gaming and online personal devices, including cell phones used by children and teens. Does your child play online gaming with instant messaging? Does her cell phone have a camera to send photos? Did you ever actually install that filtering software you intended to buy? Today is a great time to take inventory of what is going on online or electronically from your desktop, laptop, cell phone or other electronic devices.

Technology allows transmission of information worldwide at great speeds. It's easy, affordable, instantaneous and has the appearance of privacy and anonymity. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security for you or your family. The internet isn't private, and it isn't secure.

And it isn't just threats from others that cause concern. Many may be following the May arrest of the Nampa High School freshman charged with taking a sexually explicit photo of herself that was sent electronically over her phone. Unfortunately, this has become such a common occurrence that there's even a name for it - "sexting." Many teens and young adults fail to remember that online and electronic communications are not anonymous, private or secure - even if it was intended to be by the sender.

Adults, too, can be lulled into a sense of privacy or anonymity by computers. Cyberbullying and online pornography continue to increase. The U.S. Department of Justice Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program was created to help state and local law enforcement agencies enhance investigations of those who use the internet, online communication systems or computer technology to sexually exploit children. According to the Idaho Attorney General's Office, in January 2009, at the end of its first year of existence, the Idaho Internet Crimes against Children Task Force had made 19 arrests and referred 57 cases for prosecution within the state of Idaho but more are coming. In February, the task force was aware that there continued to be 938 computers containing 4,675 files of child pornography still remaining on computers within Idaho, not yet fully investigated. And they can pinpoint the locations of the computers. With the $50 million recently made available for the U.S. Department of Justice ICAC Task Force Program through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, investigations into internet crime against children throughout Idaho and the rest of the nation will continue to increase.

So what can you do? Sheriff Raney says, "Keeping your children safe online isn't about technology; it's about common sense and communication." He recommends that you get to know online friends, just as you do their friends in everyday life. Talk to them about where they go online and who they talk to. Keep the computer in a room where you can monitor it, and remind children that giving out personal information online is dangerous. I would add that everyone needs to understand that once they hit the send button for that message or photo, it becomes part of the public domain and can never be made private again. Allowing people to feel connected to their friends is important but we each have the responsibility to make sure that the connection is safe and legal.

You can find more information from the Idaho Attorney General's Office on protecting teens at http://www2.state.id.us/ag/protecteens/index.htm.