This story strikes fear in the hearts of all well-intending parents
who feel it's safer for their children to do research at home on the Internet
rather than venture to the public library.
Here's a news flash: Your kids may be doing a lot more than research
on the Internet.
In The Record story, a 14-year-old Stockton girl cultivated a five-month
online romance with a 29-year-old Seattle man that ultimately ended in
a Stockton motel room. The former Boeing engineer admitted to having unlawful
sex with the teen and was sentenced to two years in state prison.
Comments from defense attorney Patrick Piggot must serve as notice to
all parents who allow their children access to the Internet: "Parents have
to control children's use of the Internet just like they control television
shows they watch ... You wouldn't let your kids go to a ... park at night
where druggies hang out ... yet your child can get on the Internet and
contact anybody and you'd never know."
For all the wonders of the Internet, there's a seriously dark and dangerous
side that can be very tempting, especially to younger users. If you suspect
your child may be using the Internet inappropriately, there are some ways
you can track down this unacceptable use of your computer. It involves
old fashion espionage ... yep, spying.
While it's true a savvy computer user can usually cover their tracks
to avoid detection, most teenagers and pre-teenagers aren't that sophisticated
and are more concerned with immediate gratification than they are with
deleting all evidence of improper use. Most parents don't know what their
kids are doing on the Internet because they don't understand the technology
or wouldn't know where to begin checking up on their naturally curious
America Online is certainly the most popular playground where teenagers
meet in chat rooms and sometimes alter their identities for online fun
and dare. You're allowed up to five screen names with your AOL account,
including the primary billing account, with each screen name having a unique
password. Without your child's password you can't access their account
or peruse their e-mail, an often-revealing source of their online companions.
As the primary-account holder, however, you can call AOL and they will
instantly change any password in your list of screen names. You must be
the primary-account holder and provide the last four digits of your credit
card for verification. You can then log with the child's username and the
new password. For ongoing monitoring, you can store the new password from
the Preferences menu, allowing a one-click sign on without entering a password.
Once logged on to AOL, you can check the current mailbox, or you can
read mail that's already been sent or received. (Ignore the plethora of
junk mail.) All these commands are available from the Mail command on the
menu bar. Also, be sure to check the Favorite Places command to see the
online locations most frequented by your youngster.
While you can't monitor the actual chat room activity, since these are
live interactions, you can check your computer to see if any chat sessions
have been saved or "logged." Under the File menu in AOL, you can activate
the log command and actually save a chat session as a filename. These logs
can then be opened, read, printed or edited in any word processor. From
Explorer or File Manager look for any files ending in *.log in the AOL
directory then open them in a word processor. They may be harmless or very
telling. You'd be surprised how many folks keep records of their chat sessions.
Graphic images and pornography are also tempting to many young online
users. If such images have been downloaded to your computer there's a good
chance they're still there. The Download directory in AOL is the default
file location for downloaded images from this venue but you can also use
the Find File utility to search for all *.gif files or .jpg files on your
hard disk. Double clicking on the filename usually opens the file and simply
pressing the Delete key will remove any offending images. Looking at the
Properties of these files can also tell you when the image was downloaded
to your computer.
Users of Netscape and Explorer should regularly monitor the saved Bookmark
list as well as the History list in their Web browser. From both these
locations parents can see frequently visited Websites as well as get a
good sense of how a child is spending their time online.
As I proofread this article I'm plagued with feelings of guilt and betrayal.
As a parent, I do trust my teenagers and believe they will strive to make
good choices when I'm not looking directly over their shoulders. But I'm
not naive either. While the consequences were extreme in the case of the
14-year-old girl, this online activity is common, and shouldn't be regarded
lightly. If I were the mother of that teen, I would have greatly appreciated
this information. This sad story might have ended differently.