CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, October 13, 1997 

Shedding light on the 
dark side of the Internet

Last week's news in The Record's local section, "Online romance leads to sex, prison," is a chilling headline for all parents who allow their children access to the online world.

 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 offspring.

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.


For password assistance in America Online, call (800) 827-6364, and press 1-5-2. For a related Computer Connection article, see "Software keeping Internet secure" published July 7 or on the Web at http://www.ceeprompt.com/ articles/070797.html 

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.
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