Lately I've heard many people ask, "What kind of mother would let her child 'sleep over' at Michael Jackson's house?" Whether or not folks think Jackson is guilty of the horrible charges, it seems just about everyone has the same basic question.
One need only observe Michael Jackson for a few moments to instinctively know that he isn't exactly the kind of guy you want snuggling up to your little boy. Seems pretty obvious, right?
But while so many are shaking their heads in dismay at one mom's ignorance, carelessness or whatever you want to call it, there are millions of parents who blindly permit their kids to enter another type of unsupervised "Neverland" where we know unsavory characters lurk.
This virtual Neverland is a world where adults often masquerade as kids, carefully crafting relationships designed to build trust and friendship in order to break down suspicion; where the world is one of fantasy; where children are encouraged to broach any subject, say whatever is on their minds; where pornography is close at hand; where children are often enticed with the slightly risky, then the slightly risqué, then the fleeting glimpse of the hardcore.
I'm referring to the Internet in general, and chat rooms in particular.
The chat rooms kids typically visit are kid-related. They are places kids like to go to do kid things. It might be a chat room for Barney fans, a T-shirt chat room, a rock group chat room, a baseball chat room … you name it. But, like a public playground or theme park, kid chat rooms are also likely to be a prowling place for pedophiles and other perverts.
I've written about this issue before, but the recent disappearance of a young girl in my area, traced to a man she met online, has me thinking about it again. Parents hear about such stories on the news. Parents who have found porn in their e-mail inboxes, been tormented by raunchy pop-up images, or have unwittingly -- and way too easily -- stumbled across a hardcore porn site, must know that any kid who spends time on the Internet will not only be victimized by such images, but will, due to natural childhood curiosity, be drawn into them.
Yet, I'm often dismayed to learn that many otherwise smart moms and dads don't have a reliable filter on their computers. They allow their kids to spend countless hours online unsupervised and never bother to check what sites their kids have visited. And they have no clue who their kids have been aimlessly chatting with for hours on end -- or what they've been chatting about.
Of the 45 million kids with Internet access, more 50 percent say a stranger has contacted them in a chat room or through e-mail. And, according to the national Center for Missing and Exploited Children, two out of every five missing children ages 15 to 17 are abducted in connection with Internet activity.
Unfortunately, most kids today are savvy enough to keep their porn visits or private chats with strangers a secret -- they instinctively know that mom and dad wouldn't approve. And for many, there's something exciting and enticing about chatting online with someone who's a little naughty, a little mysterious, and very interested in the personal "stuff" they're chatting about.
Moms, Dads, for crying out loud, wake up!
Decent parents scoff at the ditsy mom who never asked herself the obvious questions about the King of Neverland. Well, even if your child never comes close to actually physically meeting a pervert that has stalked him or her online, it's time to ask yourself a few obvious questions about the material and relationships available on the Internet.
You've got to know that if your kids are online, they have seen porn at one time or another. You've got to know that if your child spends time in chat rooms, they are talking to strangers -- and most likely, have had an encounter with an adult posing as a child. So ask yourself, "Must physical contact occur before damage is done? How long can one image remain firmly etched in the brain, especially a first image? How do personal conversations with strangers about sexual subjects affect a child's thinking? What ideas and distorted information on life and relationships are my kids learning from strangers and pornographers?"
The bottom line is, just like the parents who gleefully sent their kids to sleepovers at Neverland and never bothered to ask too many questions, most parents would rather ignore what their kids are doing online. The mindset is the same.
Talk to your kids about their online habits. Subscribe to an Internet filter. (A couple of great ones can be found at www.fotf.org and www.afa.net). Teach your children to be safe online through resources like WebWiseKids (www.webwisekids.org). Don't, through ignorance, or laziness, or whatever, send your kids into a virtual Neverland that just might be a real nightmare.
Rebecca Hagelin is Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared on WorldNetDaily.com