Pretending. It’s a fun part of childhood.

Pretending can play a dark part as well: When a man pretends to be a teenage boy online to start a relationship with a girl, or when a neighbor pretends to have good intentions when he offers to take your son on a special outing or when a child is told to pretend that nothing happened after being touched inappropriately.

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Online, on school grounds, at home, children can be exploited by others. Parents need to be alert and aware of potential dangers to help keep their children safe, and teach their children to protect themselves, too.

“In a bar, adults know about pick-up lines and what it’s all about. Now, imagine the child on the other end, just looking for friends, who doesn’t realize someone is taking advantage of him,” said Eric Szatkowski, a special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice/Division of Criminal Investigation for about two decades. He is currently assigned to the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in Milwaukee, and is also studying for a master’s degree in Christian doctrine through Marquette University’s theology department.

1 in 11 kids have been bullied online

The anonymity of the Internet is an advantage employed by people who want to harm, bully or sexually exploit children. Recent studies show that one in seven youngsters has experienced unwanted sexual solicitations online, and one in 11 has been harassed or bullied online, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“Sexual predators are out there, but kids are doing inappropriate things to other kids, too,” Szatkowski said.

Cyber bullying among children and teens, and sexting, which Szatkowski refers to as self-produced child pornography when kids send nude pictures of themselves using cellphones, demonstrates that “there’s a lot more than the predators for parents to be concerned about.

“Sending pictures of one’s private parts is immoral and it’s a crime,” he said. “Parents should consider if it’s worth having a camera on their kid’s phone or a webcam on the computer.”

Parents are raising their family in a world intertwined with technology, so they must teach their children to use technology wisely. Following one’s Catholic beliefs will help guide parents and their children to make proper choices in the digital age, Szatkowski noted. Kids will need that value system to fall back on when they encounter peer pressure. 

“Bullying and sexting are not showing love for one another,” he added. “Parents, teach your values and talk about morality with your children. Communication is very important. Talk to your child about the dangers because kids need to know that there are people who have bad intentions.”

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Parents must understand technology

Parents also need to realize they have a responsibility when they give technology to their kids. The adults should understand the technology and if they don’t know how the new cellphone or computer works, Szatkowski suggests asking their children to show them.

Using monitoring software and filters that block inappropriate content from appearing on the computer are recommended. Szatkowski said he has used on his home computers for several years. Parents also can contact their cellphone service provider for parental control options.

Even though parents may have oversight of the computers in their home, their children need to understand the Internet’s dangers in order to be prepared for times when peer pressure could lead to risky online behavior.

To help keep children safe online, the FBI suggests:

Monitor your children’s use of the Internet; keep your computer in an open, common room of the house. Children whose Internet activity isn’t monitored are most at risk for being exploited.

Tell your kids why it’s so important not to disclose personal information online. Remind them to never respond to instant messaging, Facebook messages or emails from strangers, or to meet strangers who have contacted them through the Internet.

Check your kids’ profiles and what they post online. Talk regularly with your children about their online activities.

Report inappropriate activity to the website or to law enforcement.

If you feel your child is in danger, contact local law enforcement immediately.

Online predators use social sites

The FBI reports that the Internet has become one of the most prevalent techniques used by pedophiles to share illegal images of minors and to lure children into sexual relationships.

Initially, sexual predators used Internet chat rooms to converse with children, but chat rooms are almost passé now, Szatkowski said. Most kids use social networking sites, such as Facebook, instead of chat rooms.

And that means predators are using the social sites, too. These websites do not verify people’s identities. Kids need to understand that an adult can use a fake photo to pretend to be a teenager and ask to be a Facebook friend.

“Thousands of registered sex offenders have been removed from these sites,” Szatkowski said. “There have been cases in southeast Wisconsin where registered sex offenders were found to have dozens to hundreds of kids as online friends.”

Predators also meet kids through online video gaming, such as Xbox Live, and then move to another platform, such as texting.

Because many kids have been told by parents not to give out their phone numbers, the predator may ask the child to call him; then with caller ID the predator has the number.

A predator will manipulate the victim by flattering the child and making the child feel cared about; also by sympathizing with the child’s problems and by saying he likes the same music, movies or TV programs that the child likes.

The predator may send gifts to the child.

“While I’ve been undercover, I’ve been promised money, jewelry, clothing, rides in sports cars and boats, and tickets to sporting events,” Szatkowski said.

Also, as part of this grooming process, the predator will try to reduce the child’s inhibitions by gradually introducing sexual content into their conversations or by showing sexually explicit material.

Indicators that your child is a target

Some red flags that could indicate your child is being targeted by an online predator include:

? Hiding the cellphone or minimizing the computer screen when a parent walks by.

? Losing interest in normal day-to-day activities; slipping grades; or changes in the child’s circle of friends.

? Having personality changes, especially becoming more introverted; using improper language.

? Spending long hours online; or the child may appear overtired after secretly spending lots of time on the computer or cellphone.

? Finding pornographic files or any type of sexual communication on the computer.

? Receiving phone calls from people you don’t know, or unsolicited gifts arriving in the mail.

Pornography has made situation worse

Children and teens are sometimes curious about sexually explicit material and they may use their online access to find pornography. The FBI says that predators try to exploit this curiosity. Child pornography may be used to ease a victim’s inhibitions and to show him or her that sex between children and adults is normal.

Predators have been around for centuries, “but it has gotten worse in the past 20 years because of pornography,” said Peter Kleponis, a licensed clinical therapist in West Conshohocken, Penn.

Pornographic videotapes made it easier to bring porn into the home and now the Internet makes it even more accessible.

“Also, pornography is more violent than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “Cellphones are the biggest source of porn for teens because of their Internet access.”

Kleponis advises parents to be proactive in teaching children to avoid pornography.

For children under 11 years of age, “protect their innocence,” he said. “They should never see pornographic images; it confuses them. So monitor and limit their screen time, which means TV, computer, cellphone, iPod. Also, watch what catalogs and magazines come into the home.”

Parents with children age 11 years and older need to teach their children to reject pornography. “For middle-school boys, explain that porn is an addictive substance and it can hurt people.

For older teens, discuss how it is addictive to men and that it affects how men treat women. Teach them that this isn’t where you learn about relationships,” Kleponis said. “For girls, explain that porn hurts women and they shouldn’t date guys who view pornography.”

‘Stranger danger’ is rare

“The so-called ‘stranger danger’ is still out there and abductions are attempted, but it’s rarer than abuse by someone the child knows,” Szatkowski explained.

He advises parents to be vigilant, yet use common sense. For example, if you have young children, don’t let them wander by themselves when at a public place. For children old enough to walk to school or friends’ homes unsupervised, tell them to avoid shortcuts through woods, alleys, parks or other areas where they could be alone.

If hiring a babysitter, Szatkowski suggests checking references, looking at the online sex offender registry ( and checking the online public records of the state’s circuit courts (

An important step is fostering open communication with your children so they would feel comfortable telling you if someone touched them inappropriately.

If an adult or another kid touches your child’s private parts or tells your child to touch theirs, it is sexual abuse.

“Children need to learn what is appropriate touching and understand that if someone has touched them in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, they need to tell their parents,” Szatkowski said.

“I suggest teaching about respect – respect for others’ bodies and respect for our own bodies. You can tell your child that anything that’s covered by a bathing suit is private,” Kleponis said. “Also, tell your kids that if they see something happen to another child, they need to tell you.”

Predators often try to keep their victims silent through gifts or through threats, such as threatening to hurt the child’s family if the child tells parents what has happened.

“Parents need to teach their children not to have secrets with other adults,” Kleponis added.

Parents should discuss with their children tactics that predators sometimes use to lure children to their vehicles, such as asking for directions or for help finding a lost pet. Tell your children that adults should be asking other adults for help.

Teach kids to stay away from anyone who seems to be following them. You can practice a long, loud yell with your child that will alert others that the child is in danger. Children also should learn to never go with the abductor, but to instead kick, bite and fight back.

Many crimes not committed by strangers

Many crimes against children are not committed by strangers. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “based on what we know about those who harm children, the danger to children is greater from someone they or their family knows than from a stranger.”

People who abuse children are manipulative and resourceful. Parents need to know who their children are spending time with and be alert to any actions that raise their suspicions, such as giving presents or taking the child alone to an event.

“Be very careful about one-on-one situations,” Kleponis said.

Szatkowski said parents should make sure that background checks are done on teachers, coaches and other adults who will be with their children.

Parents also must not let anyone they know who abuses drugs or alcohol babysit their children. They should never allow a family member who abused them as children near their own children.

In addition, children need to learn that they have the right to say “No” to relatives or other adults who try to touch them or make them feel uncomfortable.

Again, open communication between parents and their children is essential. Children need to understand how important it is to tell their parents if someone asks them to keep a secret, if they have been touched inappropriately or if a relationship doesn’t feel right.

Kleponis cautions parents to avoid being too alarming or too constraining.

“You want to teach children to protect themselves without becoming afraid of adults. Children do need to trust some adults besides their parents,” he said.