Online predators can now role play with children via videogames that connect participants worldwide directly to your home gaming device.

Second in a series. Online predators can now role play with children via videogames that connect participants worldwide directly to your home gaming device. The internet-linked games which have exploded in popularity within the past five years have provided a portal for internet stalkers that is unprecedented, according to two experts in child pornography and cyber-stalkering. Dr. J. Michael Wood, Sex Offender Screening and Risk Assessment program psychologist for the Arkansas Department of Corrections, and Sheri J. Flynn, SOSRA administrator, conduct seminars for law enforcement dealing with the subject of sex offenders. Officers from across the Southwest Arkansas region of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police were involved in a training conference at the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope last week conducted by Wood and Flynn. “Sex offenders, they're deviant; and, they devote their time to this stuff,” Wood said. “I was at a presentation where they said they looked at groups; and, the most computer savvy people were: number one, computer programmers; and, number two, was sex offenders. Because they devote so much time to their 'hobby.'” Wood said he is still learning how savvy the online predators have become. “I didn't know that you could do this,” he said. “But, on the Xbox and the Wii; kids know this and sex offenders know this, that you can connect and play games with other people around the world. “Kids know they can play with their friends down the street,” Wood said. “But, there is also some kind of central way you can log on to the world wide web. “We had an offender establish a relationship with a young boy and they sent pictures and did all kinds of things through the video game,” he said. “Every year the technology changes; and, now you have webcams. It is evolving, and the sex offenders are always on the forefront of how to exploit that. “The kids are really at the disadvantage and they don't know it,” Wood said. Flynn said research shows that internet usage belies its misuse. “Generally speaking, what the research is finding is about one in two people who commit online offenses, have put their hands on somebody,” Flynn explained. “They may not have been convicted, but they have done something; but, it makes sense if that is what your interest is, and you're going online searching for pornography to meet up with a 13 or 14-year old girl; and, if you're willing to set up a meet with someone you thought was 13 or 14, if you get a chance to meet them or have sex with them, why wouldn't you.” Flynn and Wood are emphatic that a victim has been created in every instance of child pornography, whether enticed through an online chat to expose themselves or in an exchange of photos online or in a coerced act. “I've been doing this 28 years and it still turns my stomach,” Flynn said. “These aren't just pictures; they are extremely graphic and disturbing images.” Both Flynn and Wood suggest as the No. 1 rule for parents to better assure their child's safety is literally looking over the child's shoulder during any computer and social media usage. “Parents should know exactly what their child is doing,” Flynn said. “The computer should be in a family area, so they can look over a child's shoulder at any time. They should look at the computer's history to see where a child has been going online.” Staying alert to the real time possibilities is essential, she said. “If they walk up and the child minimizes a box on the computer, they need to pull it up and see who they are chatting with,” Flynn said. “They need to know who they are in a chat room with and exactly what they are talking about.” According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 93 percent of children ages 12 to 17 go online; and among children as young as five years old, 80 percent use the internet at least once a week. And, one in 25 children ages 10 to 17 have received an online solicitation to meet someone. But, both Flynn and Wood recognize that children will attempt to evade parental oversight; and, that the prospects for both that and the vulnerability to online predators increases dramatically with the use of social media and hand-held electronics, such as smart phones, iPads, and video games. “We have smart phones where kids can get online; they can go to the library and get online,” Flynn said. “Parents really need to know where their kids are, what they are doing and who they are communicating with.” Both Flynn and Wood recommend that parents question children about suspicious activity and take their suspicions to police. “They need to look for themselves; check the computer history, and if they are not sure how to do that, take it to an expert who can do that,” Flynn said. “Or, if they are pretty sure something is going on, they can call the police.” Wood said many prosecutions of online predators have resulted from a parent's vigilance. “I can think of several cases where the parent looked over their kid's shoulder and saw they were chatting with their child, and the parent got involved and went to the police, and the police took over the persona of the kid,” he said. Unfiltered access to the internet is simply asking for trouble, Wood said. “I am appalled at the people I see who give their kids unfiltered access to the internet; whatever it is, the iPad, the i-touches, your phones,” he said. “Now, it is harder. I struggle with this as a parent, because they can have these devices.” Consequently, Wood said that children need to understand, in age appropriate ways, that there are predators online. “It's an unfair advantage that the sex offender has that people aren't always what they pretend to be online,” he said. “Parents need to have a good communication with their kids about that.” Next: Hunting predators.