Parental involvement provides protection on the Internet
They're predators and they are after your children. Locked doors do nothing to keep them out of your home. They enter brazenly at the mere flip of a switch.
Some predators specialize in "kiddie porn," a term used to loosely define child pornography. Others are child molesters. The tool of their trade is the family computer.
How widespread is child pornography and illegal sexual activity involving children?
According to Herb Hays, executive director of the Ministries of Eden, Ford City, the problem is "pervasive."
"By pervasive I mean this is everywhere," Hays said. "This is not something limited to big cities or urban areas. Anywhere there is a computer connected to the Internet, kids can be victimized."
Just what constitutes illegal sexual activity involving children?
Hays said the most common activity is the transmission of sexually explicit images of children under 18.
"It is a Megan's Law crime to even download such images," Hays said. "Despite it being illegal, it's a big business."
Hays recalled a ring of people arrested in Texas for selling memberships to a child pornography website. He said they accepted payment by credit card and for a certain fee, a person could view children involved in various sex acts.
However, Hays said that sexually explicit photos of children are only part of the problem.
"Sexual predators get on chat room sites and try to lure young kids into having sexually explicit conversations. The real danger is that these predators are not satisfied to merely 'talk' to children - they often try to lure them into face-to-face meetings."
Hays said that while most sexual predators are men, there are at least a few cases where women have enticed children, both male and female, to meet them for an illicit rendezvous. He said that about 50 percent of the encounters are heterosexual and 50 percent are homosexual in nature.
Hays credited the Pennsylvania State Police for keeping tabs on child pornography rings and potential sexual predators who focus on children.
One such officer is Cpl. John Stapansky of Butler. Stapansky agreed that the problem was very prevalent on the Internet.
"Downloading child pornography or enticing children into a meeting for illicit sex is a violation of Crimes Code Title 18, Section 6312 - Sexual Abuse of Children," Stapansky said. "The code prohibits possession, transmission or the making of child pornography."
Stapansky said while it is sometimes difficult to trace the origin of child pornography, it is not too difficult to trace people who get into chat rooms to entice children.
Both Stapansky and Hays said there are steps parents can take to safeguard their children from pornography in general and from chat-room predators.
"Parental involvement is the best deterrent," Hays said "You have to take an interest in what your kids are doing, especially what they are viewing on the Internet."
Hays said parents can block certain types of websites with software programs such as one called Net Nanny that will block access to pornographic websites.
"The important thing is just being there for your kids. Kids are very curious. When they ask questions about sex, parents must be prepared to respond in an open and frank way.
"We need to take away the child's inability to turn to their parents and this means building trust between child and parent."
Stapansky agreed that it is important for parents to discuss what their children view on the Internet.
"It's also important to keep the computer in a central location in the house," Stapansky said. "Children shouldn't have a computer with Internet capability in their room. I think that parents should also make some clear rules about what can and cannot be viewed on the Internet."
"Parents have to impress their children with the fact that the Internet is world wide. There are millions of people on the net and you never know who you are talking to," he said.
Stapansky said that if a parent or guardian suspects that their child is being enticed to meet someone they encountered in a chatroom, call the local or state police.