“The Internet has truly changed our society,” said Sgt. Byron Fassett with the Dallas Police Department. “It’s not a matter of us ignoring it — it’s here to stay.”

Fassett addressed a group of Red Oak ISD parents at a recent parents meeting at Red Oak High School, providing parents with information and resources regarding Internet safety.

Fassett, with the Child Exploitation Squad and founder of the Internet Crimes Against Children team with the Dallas Police Department, has years of work under his belt with the department investigating child abuse and exploitation.

With the evolution of the Internet and Web sites such as Myspace.com, Fassett said children are exposed to images, words and people that would not be possible without the Internet.

“The things I was exposed to at 12 and 13 are mild compared to what our children are exposed to today,” Fassett said. “Computers are a wonderful tool for our children to use. But we have to understand that people who want to hurt children will find a way through technology.”

Fassett pointed to Web sites such as Myspace.com as ways for children to “find themselves.” Myspace.com encourages creativity in developing a Web page, popularity and acceptance in adding friends and adding comments to a page. However, they also serve as a mask — account users can transform themselves into anyone they want to be.

“Not only are kids going to use social networking sites to kind of find themselves — predators will use it too,” Fassett said. “Where are predators going to look for their victims? They can find them all around the world.”

Fassett compared sites like Myspace.com, when used without supervision, to the most dangerous places a parent can possibly imagine.

“I want you to think of the most dangerous place in Dallas/Fort Worth — where you would never want them to be at midnight,” Fassett said. “Your child is in more danger when unsupervised on a computer because they let their guard down. It gives them the opportunity to make some bad decisions.”

Fassett asked parents to remember their time as a teenager or pre-teen and their experiences in running away. Children at that time had no specific place to go, no friend whose mother would take them in. So, children would stay away from the house until they got hungry, then return home. Now, children meet people on the Internet who sympathize with their problems, develop strong relationships and offer a place to stay when things aren’t going well at home.

“A child becomes a friend with a person pretending to be a child who wants them to runaway. They can easily buy them a ticket to anywhere,” Fassett said.

Fassett said one easy way to keep an eye on a child’s actions on the Internet is to keep the computer in a family room.

“If your computer is hooked up to the Internet, there is no reason why the computer should be in the kid’s room. The computer should be in a family room,” Fassett said. “We have to bring that computer to the family room and force that interaction.”

Fassett also said a child’s passwords should not be kept secret from parents.

“At some point in time, you have to rise up and let kids know who the boss is,” Fassett said. “Set rules for computer use. Think of it like setting rules for your child’s dating. They should be similar.”

Fassett recommended that parents and children set accounts up together when the children are young. Fassett recommended that as children get older, allow them some freedoms on the Internet, such as setting up their own accounts and passwords. However, children should be required to write down the passwords and put them in an envelope.

“Promise not to look at the passwords except in an emergency situation, but stress that they can’t change the password without letting a parent know,” Fassett said. “There needs to be consequences for breaking rules. The best deterrent for someone getting access to your child is for you to have access first.”

“Scare techniques don’t work. Have those age appropriate discussions with your child. Make computing a fun experience, but equip them with knowledge to make good decisions when you’re not there,” Fassett said. “I’m all about equipping our children to protect themselves while you’re not watching.”

Sites such as Myspace.com have also increased the effect of bullying, with children offered another outlet to degrade and humiliate people on a social network.

“There’s somebody related to a child that is being bullied. There is someone related to a child that is a bully. Bullying happens at school. With the Internet now and the social networking sites, kids can write mean things for everyone to see,” Fassett said. “One of the problems with the Internet is that just because someone writes something, people think it’s true.”

Fassett encourages parents to visit informational Web sites that provide information and articles on online safety, including:

www.ncmec.org www.blogsafety.com www.software4parents.com www.netsafe.org.nz www.netfamilynews.org www.safekids.com www.safeteens.com www.onguardonline.gov

E-mail Mandy at mandy.bourgeois@elliscountychronicle.com.