December 19, 2008

Making the Internet safe for children

Campaign tries to stop online risks for minors

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

A national bilingual media campaign educates parents about the risks their children face online while at the same time warns potential online sexual predators that exploiting children online is a serious crime.

Project Safe Childhood, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Justice and its partners, includes four public service announcements, two of them available in Spanish, one three-part webisode, web banners, radio ads, and print materials.

One of the Spanish-language announcements encourages parents to become more involved in learning about online safety and in supervising their children’s online activities.

“Every time children log on to the Internet, they are at risk from predators intent on sexually exploiting them,” said United States Attorney Karen P. Hewitt during the press conference to announce the campaign in San Diego last week. “These public service announcements will help raise the awareness of children and their parents about the real dangers of lurking online.”

According to statistics provided during the press conference, 48 percent of mothers admit not knowing what their children do online. Only 15 percent of parents use software to control what their children are doing online.

About seven percent of teenagers between ages 12 and 14 have received an online solicitation to send a nude picture of themselves. Almost 14 percent of teenagers between ages 12 to 14 participated in an online conversation with sexual content.

San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne said that 80 percent of children won’t go to parents if they encounter problems online. And 30 percent of teenagers have talked to an online stranger about the possibility of meeting in person.

“We want people to know how serious the risk is for children online,” Hewitt said.

Another aspect of the campaign focuses in warning would-be online predators about a clear message: Stay away from children.

“Possession of child pornography is a federal felony,” Hewitt said. “If you download or distribute child pornography, you will be prosecuted, and your life will be ruined.”

Keith Slotter, special agent in charge with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in San Diego, said that online predators should pay close attention to these messages.

“No crime is more reprehensible than those crimes committed against children,” Slotter said. “This is a severe federal offense.”

National City Police Chief Adolfo Gonzales said that all police agencies in San Diego County are working together to put a stop to online child exploitation. He added that through federal government agencies they are also partnering with agencies in Mexico to catch online offenders.

Gonzales said that many of the young prostitutes that used to work the streets of National City, were recruited and forced to join prostitution rings online. He said the police department now considers many prostitutes victims, instead of criminals.

“The real criminals here are those pimps that force and threat these girls into prostitution,” Gonzales said.

Launched in May, 2006, Project Safe Childhood is a nationwide initiative designed to protect children from online sexual exploitation and abuse. It uses local, state, and national resources to better locate, apprehend and prosecute individuals who exploit children via the Internet, as well as identify and rescue victims.

For more information about Project Safe Childhood and the public service announcements, please visit www.projectsafechildhood.gov.

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