Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ex-youth worker warns of Internet dangers
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(News) Monday, 10 March 2008, 00:36 PST
FRANK PEEBLES, Citizen staff

The places your children are going on the internet may seem innocent, even to them, but traps are set in those places to capture and abuse young people. The only way to protect your kids, according to an expert coming to Prince George, is to know who your children are spending time with on the net the same way you insist on knowing who they are spending time with after school and on the weekend.

Get over your fear of the internet, do it fast, and get involved yourself in the technologies your children are using, said Merlyn Horton of the Safe OnLine Outreach Society. You children are literally at stake, she said.

"We are concerned with the role the internet is playing connecting vulnerable youth with (sexual abuse) recruiters, predators, individuals with a sexual interest in children," Horton told The Citizen. "They make offers. They will offer young people in isolated, rural areas outrageous things: whirlwind romances, modeling jobs, free apartments. Young people in the north have been known to accept these offers. It is not that kids are dumb, but they have romantic ideals, they don't have the experiential frame of reference to know what could happen, many are disenfranchised already. And these adults use that to lure them."

They lure them into a life of horror. Once they are physically in their cyberpal's presence, he calls all the shots. It might start sweet, but ultimately the predator systematically and quickly indenchures them financially, with drug addiction, with shame, with fear for their own safety or the safety of those they love unless they perform certain acts. In many cases they are soon pimped out to the streets.

It goes deeper than that, Horton said. In many cases, it is all done on the internet with photos. Young people are convinced to take explicit pictures of themselves and email them to an online romancer, only the romancer isn't just playing a little game of photo peek-a-boo, the pictures are actually sold to sex-based internet sites. In many cases these are children 14, 15, 16 years old (sometimes younger) Horton said. Once posted, those pictures are out there for public discovery forever.

"You can search for kids, on some social networking sites, by community: 14- to 15-year-old girls who like to drink in Prince George. There are search tools to pinpoint those girls. They can be approached that way, with the offer of friendship, an offer of some kind, it starts out as chat then the recruiter ramps it up and those who are willing to engage in sexual conversation get concentrated on, and it moves from there. They become online friends, online romances, they've never met but their true intent is recruiting young people into the street sex scene. Some young people's sense of adventure overwhelms any caution an adult might exercise."

Horton said a recent survey, and it is backed up by previous data, indicated that 25
per cent of young people would agree to meet a stranger they communicated with online. That ought to justifiably scare any parent into finding out more about this tool the kids are using. Most, said Horton, do not so their kids text, MSN and e-chat circles around their adult protectors.

"I love the internet," Horton said. "We will get a handle on it. We are just in the wild, wild west version of it right now. We have a generation gap compounded by a technology gap. Most adults are cyber tourists but a lot of kids are cyber residents, and they are in there with basically no role modelling. Adults are overwhelmed. Parents need to look, they need to put time into that, in spite of the busyness of life. You can't ban kids from doing this stuff, they are going to get into it one way or another and mostly for perfectly great reasons, so you have to sit down and figure out Facebook and Myspace and Nexopia and all these things so you can know how to have a conversation with your kids about it, and know what really goes on."

Horton is a former youth worker who had an aptitude for technology and now it is her life. She tours all over the province and elsewhere teaching the public about online child exploitation. She has had these discussions with the FBI, Interol, CSIS, and various forms of government as well.

She stresses the need for teachers, social workers, youth workers and others who are professionally in that world of young people to also enhance their understanding of the latest internet uses by kids.

Horton will be conducting a workshop for such professionals at the Youth Around Prince building (on 6th Avenue facing City Hall) at 9 a.m. this morning.

Tuesday night at 7 p.m. she will be at the Native Friendship Centre for a public forum hosted by CASEY (Community Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth).

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