MILTON, Ga. — Now that school is out, children will have even more time to spend on the Internet.
What those kids, especially those in middle school, are doing however, might surprise you.
“There are countless Internet sites where kids can participate in inappropriate behaviors,” Milton Police Department Community Outreach Officer Ara Baronian said. “Unfortunately what a lot of these kids don’t realize is that these inappropriate behaviors are illegal.”
Baronian said most of these sites begin as chat rooms where kids develop online relationships.
“Then start sharing personal information such as cellphone numbers, addresses and favorite hangouts, which progresses into sexting, webcam sex and physical encounters,” he said.
A parent of a sixth-grade girl, who chose not to be identified, found inappropriate photos of a 16-year-old on her daughter’s phone and confronted her daughter about it.
“I read her texts, where she mentioned seeing photos of a boy’s private parts and then checked her photos,” the mother said. “And I found them. I realized then automatically trusting my daughter wasn’t the route to go because her curiosity overrode her ability to determine right from wrong.”
Baronian said this is becoming more common.
“We have had incidents where parents have approached us when finding photos and sexting on their children’s phone,” Baronian said.
Mental health professional Sharon Besterfeldt said it’s important to understand where your children are emotionally before allowing them access to the Internet.
“By nature, middle school aged children are curious,” Besterfeldt said. “They’re moving away from the total control from their parents and seeking more in-depth relationships outside of the family, but are still not mature enough to have securely established boundaries.”
The key to preventing this from happening — parental control.
“Checking the Web history on your computers, reading text messages, monitoring usage of all Internet technology is important,” Baronian said. “The most important thing people should know about chat rooms and social media sites is that over 50 percent of the people on these sites are falsely representing themselves and are predatory by nature.”
Besterfeldt agreed and added it’s the parent’s responsibility to establish boundaries for their children.
“Give your kids time limits, use parental control software and keep electronics locked up when you’re not home,” Besterfeldt said.
But it’s not just other children your child might be interacting with.
Besterfeldt said it’s important to educate your child about the dangers of the Internet on a regular basis.
“Parents need to have uncomfortable conversations with their kids; it’s part of parenting,” Besterfeldt said. “They need to acknowledge their child’s curiosity but continuously reiterate the dangers that curiosity can cause if they’re not careful.
“They need to understand that once something is on the Internet, it’s there forever,” she said.
Apps to watch for, Besterfeldt said, include SnapChat, where someone can send a photo or text and it’s automatically deleted, but there is evidence showing that to be untrue.
Baronian said the legal consequences children can face by going to these sites can change their lives forever.
“As long as both parties are similar in age, they are both breaking the law,” Baronian said.
He said Georgia laws have changed and that up until this year, distribution of sexually explicit photos would have still been considered transfer of child pornography and labeled a felony, forcing both parties to be registered sex offenders, but the Georgia Legislature recently passed a bill changing this crime to a misdemeanor and preventing children from being registered as sexual offenders.
“Dependent upon the court, however, they can still receive up to a year in jail,” Baronian said.
Baronian said that if parents provide children with Internet access or cellphones, they need to maintain constant supervision because what begins in a chat room can move to personal contact and lifelong consequences.
Local police departments offer various educational seminars on Internet safety for parents and children.
To find out about one in your area, contact your local police department.