"Many times," said Sheriff Amerson, "parents do not know who their kids are talking to on the Internet or what is being said."
The Amersons work together to present an Internet safety program to parents and youths. They deliver their message to school groups, churches, and civic groups.
Lisa Amerson, who works as the Technology Director of Calhoun County Schools, also teaches her students about Internet safety. Students alone, though, cannot stem the crimes committed by Internet users.
"Parents must monitor their children on the Internet highway just as they would on the city streets or neighborhoods," said Mrs. Amerson. "It is important for parents to be nosy and ask questions, set boundaries, time limits and guidelines for interacting with others online."
She also said parents need to educate themselves about the Internet, not just on the computer but also on cell phones, IPods and gaming devices. If parents don't know how to use the social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook, they should ask their child to show them their web page.
Younger children are proud to show their parents what they have done and how they have "pimped" (decorated) their web page. Having a web page is an expression of their individuality and how they wish to be perceived by the outside world.
They also enjoy interacting with social groups they might not otherwise encounter. One problem the Amersons have is that some students do not want their parents to hear their message because they fear they will advise parents to unplug the Internet. In truth, the Amersons want parents to oversee their child using the Internet safely and with caution. "As an educator," said Mrs. Amerson, "I know the great resources that are available to students and parents [on the Internet]."
Parents can easily communicate with teachers during hours that are convenient to them as well as stay informed on their child's school progress by logging in to view schedules, grades and discipline as well as the latest news from their child's school.
According to the Amersons, there are three areas where youths are most vulnerable: sexual predators who seek youths on the Internet, cyber bullying and pornography addiction.
Sexual predators who seek youths on the Internet
During the Sheriff's tenure, he said the issue of sexual predators has gone from non-existent to common, even in Calhoun County.
Parents are not always aware that their child was communicating with and meeting strangers, some of whom sexually abused them. The rise in future problems of this nature worries the Amersons. "Never before in history have youths had this kind of freedom," said Sheriff Amerson.
"It is safer to let a child wander on the streets of downtown Atlanta than it is to let them wander around on the Internet without supervision." This is one time when it is absolutely essential to be nosy, the sheriff added. Many parents do not want to pry into their child's life, and they often think they can trust their child to deal with smart and dangerous predators.
The Internet, like another aspect of their lives can give too much freedom to youths. The teen-aged brain lacks the maturity to decide who to trust.
Besides exchanges of a hidden sexual nature, the Internet allows youths the power to bully others, to make fun of others, and to alter photographs of others. Sheriff Amerson said in one case, students set up a Web site under the name of a teacher who had no idea someone was communicating with others using her name and her photographs.
"Sometimes students will bring their disputes and arguments on the Internet to school with them," said Sheriff Amerson. "And students post too many vital details about themselves on the Internet."
Youths do not realize the dangers of giving strangers the ability to go to their homes, call them on their cell phones, send them text messages, or see what they look like. Some youths, too, have no qualms about postings photographs of themselves in provocative poses.
While they may remove or delete a picture they have posted online, all copies of that picture are impossible to remove and could resurface later. Employers, college admissions and law enforcement often review personal web pages when considering an application for employment, admission or investigating a crime. What youths do today online can have lasting effects on their future.
The dangers of addiction to pornography often begin in youth, and youths now have more access to pornography than ever. "They are always one click away from having pornographic images flash upon their computer or cell phone screens," said Sheriff Amerson.
Neither youths, nor many adults, realize that addiction to pornography can destroy a person's morals, personality, and health. Sometimes, a person who views pornography over a period of years often "acts out" the behavior they view in pictures, in movies, or on the Internet.
Youths realize that long-term exposure to pornography can lead to rape, incest, pedophilia, and other sex crimes. The two facts that many youths do know, though, are that, unlike drugs or alcohol, pornography is free and easier to obtain, thanks to the Internet.
What are parents to do?
Wise parents should become educated on computer use. "One of the troubles we encounter," said Sheriff Amerson, "is that grandparents or parents who do not have or use computers can be easily fooled."
There are eight things the Amersons suggests for parents:
1. Parents should have security software installed on their computers. The software should have the capability to see which sites their child has visited, to see the content of emails that have been sent and received, and to filter out pornography.
2. Be proactive. Parents should learn to use the Internet and to create their own web pages in order to be able to visit their child's Facebook, Myspace or Twitter pages.
3. In homes where parents have no computer, they must talk with their child about the dangers of the Internet. They should advise their children what to do to avoid Internet abuse when in the homes of friends who use computers.
4. Parents should talk with their children and discuss all the dangers the Internet poses.
5. Youths should not have computers in their bedrooms. Computers should always be in the family room or den where use can be monitored.
6. Parents should monitor the text messages received on the child's cell phone. They should not be able to erase sent or received messages without allowing the parent to give approval. Parents should track the frequency and numbers of text messages that been sent and received through their telephone provider and to check out telephone numbers they do not recognize.
7. Parents should set an example for their children by not viewing Internet pornography. Social networking sites have site agreements which set limits on the age of the users. Parents need to be familiar with this as well as how to ask the social networking owners to remove their child's web pages if the child doesn't adhere to rules set by the parent.
8. Parents may visit sites dedicated to promoting Internet safety. Some of them are Isafe.org, onguardonline.gov, netsmartz.org and safeteens.com.
For information about the Amersons' program on Internet safety, call the Sheriff's Office at 236-6600.
To report Internet abuse visit www.Netsheriff.org, which is being piloted in Calhoun County Schools and Shelby County Schools in partnership with law enforcement.
Resources are also available on the Calhoun County School Web site, under the resources tab: www.calhoun.k12.al.us.
Sherry Kughn is a freelance writer in Anniston.