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Parents must be vigilant over childrens online life

Child sexual exploitation is 'overwhelming in magnitude yet largely unrecognized and underreported,' according to the Virginia-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

An estimated 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys is - or will be - sexually victimized before adulthood.

'It's pretty amazing how many kids are approached by somebody who is soliciting them online,' said Nancy McBride, national safety director for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

A 2006 study conducted by the center found that 1 in 7 youths - defined as children between the ages of 10 and 17 - received a sexual solicitation over the Internet.

Four percent received an aggressive sexual solicitation, such as a request to meet somewhere, a phone call or off-line mail, money or gifts.

Thirty-four percent experienced unwanted exposure to sexual material, such as photos of nude people or people having sex. Children told a parent or guardian about 27 percent of such episodes. Children who felt very or extremely upset or afraid by distressing encounters reported them to a parent or guardian 42 percent of the time.

Not just troubled kids are susceptible

All children and teens are susceptible to online predators for many reasons, according to the center's website. They are naturally curious about sex. Adolescents questioning their sexuality are even more at risk because they may go online to find support and companionship, only to find adults looking to take advantage of them.

Even children and teens who receive ample attention from their families still crave attention from others, especially from those they may consider older or mature. Predators may flatter and lavish intended victims with affection to coerce them into sex.

Predators also may use teenage rebellion to their advantage: Those victimized while disobeying a parent may be reluctant to admit it for fear of being punished.

On the flip side, a well-behaved child or teenager who respects adults and authority may be less likely to resist a predator because they are used to following an adult's orders - however uncomfortable it may make them.

Trolling, grooming

McBride said it's important for parents to understand the dynamics that allow online predators to lure children and teens.

'Sometimes the person says all the right buzz words,' she said, adding that such predators make the target feel understood, cared for and appreciated.

They troll sites frequented by the vulnerable, such as chatrooms for depressed teens, and groom the target with lie after lie.

'Adults fall for this stuff, too,' McBride said. 'So it's understandable how a young impressionable person can.'

Since 1998, when the national center's cyber tipline was launched, it has documented 3,479 cases of online enticement in which a minor or a predator has traveled to meet in person.

In that same time period, 34,703 cases had happy endings when the predator or child was intercepted before a physical encounter.

'What we're finding more and more with those who are classified as endangered runaways is a computer or Internet component,' she said, adding that police automatically examine the home computer.

Parents need to understand that for today's computer-savvy generation, there's no line between the real world and the virtual world.

'For kids, it's (the Internet) is where they live,' McBride said.

Parental vigilance

That's why parents need to know who their children are talking to online.

'Know their passwords,' she said. And be upfront about it. Let your kids know you'll be checking what they do online, not because you're spying on them, but because you're making sure they're not getting into any danger.

And don't be intimidated by a steep learning curve or your child's advanced technological knowledge, she said.

'No software program is going to beat a parent's attention, monitoring and open communication,' McBride said.

Sgt. Claudio Grandjean, spokesman for the Gresham Police Department, agreed with McBride's tips and said the same vigilance must be applied to cellular phones, which are now mini computers.

Make sure you have access to your children's social networking accounts, such as Facebook, he said.

He is constantly amazed when parents balk at such suggestions, citing their child's right to privacy.

'Well, what is more important: Their right to privacy or your job as a parent to protect them?' he asked. 'You wouldn't let your child go wherever with whoever. But that's what they're doing online.'