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1. Remember that what you say in a chat room or instant messaging session is live — you can’t take it back or delete it later.

2. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want the public to know — this includes your full name, your address, phone number of other personal information.

3. Don’t get together with someone you meet in a chat room. If you must, meet in a public place and bring along some friends.

4. Don’t reveal your actual location or when and where you plan to hang out.

5. Choose a nick name that’s not sexually suggestive and doesn’t give away your real name.

6. If someone says or does something creepy — block them and don’t respond.

7. If the topic turns to sex, just sign out. That can often lead somewhere you don’t want to go.

© 2008 ConnectSafely.org

Chat Room Safety Advice
by Larry Magid

Much has been written about dangers on the Internet, but if your child isgoing to get in trouble online, chances are that it will be because ofsomething that happens in a chat room. Don’t be alarmed. Millions of children engage in chat and instant messagingevery day and the overwhelming majority are not victimized. Still, a number of the leads reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipLine.

(www.cybertipline.com) are “onlineenticement” cases and the vast majority of those started out in a chat room,according to Ruben Rodriquez, director of NCMEC’s ExploitedChild Unit. However, the fact that they represent a tiny fraction of kidsonline is of no conciliation to those children or their families.

Most of these cases, says Rodriquez, involve a similar methodology. Theperpetrator lurks in a public chat room looking for a child he thinks isvulnerable. I use “he” because most sexual predators are male; however,there have been cases of adult women using the Internet to solicit underage boys and girls. When he finds someone who seems vulnerable, he invitesthe child into a private area of the chat room to get better acquainted.Next comes private chat via an instant message service followed by e-mail,phone conversations and, finally, a face-to-face meeting.

The practice isn’t unique to the United States. In a separate interview,Nigel Williams, former director of London-based Childnet International(www.childnet-int.org), painted nearly an identical picture based on his organization’s work around the globe. The United Kingdom recentlyexperienced its first reported case of a child that was seduced into asexual relationship by an adult encountered online. The girl is 13 and the man –who is now serving a five-year jail sentence, is 33.

In this UK case, the initial contact took place in a chat room and wasfollowed by a daily exchange of e-mail, including some in which the man sentthe girl sexually explicit photographs. There were also regular conversations on a mobile phone and, finally, a series of meetings at hisapartment, which eventually led to sexual intercourse. After the thirdmeeting, the girl confided in her parents who contacted the police. As isoften the case, force wasn’t involved. The vulnerable girl submitted to theman’s advances.

Children who are relatively quiet in online chats are especially targeted,says Rodriquez. “Predators like to go after kids who tend to expressagreement in chat rooms but not say a lot because they know that these kidsare vulnerable.” It’s like children who are on the sidelines onplaygrounds. The ones playing the game are already getting recognition. Theones that aren’t are more likely to be lonely and happy for whateverattention they can get.

And, of course, the predator doesn’t start by sexually propositioning achild. His first tactic is to create a comfort level, typically by posingas a young person about the same age as the intended victim. Early in the process, the predator might even send the child a photograph of “himself” toreassure the child. Of course, it’s not really a photo of the personengaged in the chat but of an attractive child about the same age as thevictim — possibly scanned from a magazine — often engaged in a happy socialactivity with parents, friends or siblings.

Sexual predators, according to Rodriquez, are often very skilled at theircrimes. “They know how to manipulate children, he said. “They know theirlikes and dislikes and they know what buttons to push.” And they’re patient.It sometimes takes months to turn a contact from a chat room into a sexualvictim. And, even though these online relationships typically begin with thechild believing that he or she is communicating with another child, it’s notuncommon for the predator to eventually let the child know that he is “a bitolder” than he might have first indicated. Using phrases like, “how do youfeel about a `big brother’ or an `uncle,’ ” the adult prepares the child forthe eventual meeting where his age will become obvious. Rodriquez saidthat some kids will cut off the relationship the moment they realize they’redealing with an adult, but others will be flattered by it. Besides, it’snot uncommon for predators to be attempting to seduce several children at atime so even if the kid goes away, they have other victims lined up.

In some cases, the child continues to believe that the person on the otherend of the chat sessions and e-mail is a child up until the meeting. Theadult might tell the unsuspecting child, “My dad will pick you up,” so the will feels safe gettinginto the adult’s car.

Williams cautions parents that the chat itself is only a meeting point. Inmany cases, the child and the perpetrator are together in the chat room fora very short time and continue the conversation via e-mail and other venues,including mobile phones. In the UK and Europe, it’s very common forteenagers to have cell phones and, unlike the United States, many of those phoneshave short message system (SMS) capabilities.

“It’s very popular,” saidWilliams, “for kids to exchange messages on their cell phones.” Williams worries that would-be pedophiles will use the same technology to reach outto kids. Another problem with cell phones is that kids can use them awayfrom home where parents have no clue as to who they’re talking with.

If you have kids who chat online — and if you’re a parent you probably do –you might be wondering how you can protect your kids. The answer, saysRodriquez and other safety experts, is to try to keep in close touch with what your kids are doing online. Be especially wary if they always keep thedoor shut or turn off the monitor the moment you walk in the door. Still,that might not be a sign of a serious problem, but of your child’s desire to maintain privacy while chatting with other kids.

Williams urgesparents to talk with their children about Internet safety. Your kids mightnot like the conversation, but it’s worth having and worth repeating once inawhile, even if your kids tell you that they’re tired of hearing about it.

Childnet operates an excellent Web site (www.chatdanger.com) that providesparents with advice on how to recognize and prevent problems that can arisein chat rooms. Although it’s aimed primarily at the UK and Europe, there is plenty of good advice for those of us on this side of the pond.