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Family’s tragedy serves as warning for parents of teens

On Jan. 9, the search for a 14-year-old Escondido girl who disappeared over the weekend with a man she met on the Internet ended in South Dakota. Thankfully, the girl is headed home, and the man who came to the San Diego area to take the child has been booked on suspicion of rape.

The teen-ager met the man while she posed as an 18-year-old on various Web sites and in online chat rooms. When her parents became aware of her behavior, they took away computer privileges. Their daughter then moved to text messaging and phone calls. And though the parents believed they were keeping a sharp eye on her, they awoke Sunday morning to find her missing.

These kinds of stories scare the dickens out of parents and yet, do we really know what our children are up to when they log on? Are we so sure their text messages and phone chats are with other children and not some 34-year-old man with a criminal past?

The Internet is one of the most important inventions in today’s world, right up there with the light bulb and the radio. We can search every corner of the world for information on anything we can think up, and millions of things we can’t. We can also meet new friends online, connecting with people who share similar interests.

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Our kids can learn much from the Internet as well. Not so long ago, the encyclopedia was the weapon of choice for big homework assignments. Now, many high school classes require Web-based research.

Our children also connect with peers online, through sites like MySpace.com or Yahoo. High schoolers set up their own personal Web sites and link with “friends” from school or the neighborhood or even thousands of miles away. They are certainly part of the global community, as are we all.

The probem lies not with a child’s inquisitive nature, but in the dangers inherent in an unregulated environment. There are people out there - like the man from South Dakota - looking for ways to connect with our children, and there are too many examples of the tragic damage that can happen if these adults are allowed to get close to our kids.

As much as we may trust our children and as much as we may want to respect their privacy, we as parents have to take seriously our roles as their protectors and guardians. It’s up to us to determine whether they are mature enough to be online without supervision.

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Even then, checking up doesn’t hurt. Ask your child to show you his or her Web page. Ask them about the people they’ve met online. And if you are the least bit suspicious, read your child’s text messages, check the Web browser history on his or her computer, read incoming and outgoing e-mail. The worry about whether our children will see us as overbearing is minimal compared to the way we’ll worry if we wake up one Sunday morning and find them gone.