The Web can open up a fascinating world for kids, but in an instant it can also bring graphic pornography and sexual predators into your home. When it comes to your kids, reports "Today" show anchor Katie Couric, the most dangerous place in the house can be just one keystroke away.
"It's as simple as literally pressing the space bar, and up will pop graphic pornography on my 11-year-old's screen," said one mother. "It's infuriating because even though we keep putting the filters on, it still filters in."
A study released by the Justice Department found that one in four children online are exposed to unwanted and explicit pornography.
"A child can come across pornography just by misspelling a word or typing in something they think would be one type of site. For instance, G.I.R.L.S. takes you to a porn site," said Donna Rice Hughes, president of "Enough Is Enough," an organization devoted to keeping online pornography off kids' computers. "Once you get to a porn site, often you can't get out. When you hit the back button it will bring up another porn picture."
And don't be fooled; some kids go looking for it, especially teens. Sometimes they just can't resist the temptation to simply click on something so forbidden, so easy to access, and so pervasive.
“You just need to type it into the computer and it will go right to it. It wasn't very hard,” said Matthew, the son of a minister who became obsessed with online porn two years ago when he was 13.
“It was probably hundreds of sites maybe more,” said his father.
"And that’s when I thought I was monitoring," his mother said. “It's devastating."
“You just have no idea, and you go through all these feelings — where did I fail, where did we mess up, how come we didn't see this,” said Matthew's father.
But experts say the greatest online danger isn't in the images, but the chat rooms and instant messaging, known as "IMing," which allows predators direct contact with your children, right under your nose.
Los Angeles police detective Bill Sweeney poses as a 13-year-old girl in chat rooms to track down online sexual predators. In less than five minutes the chat can take a frightening turn: right to sex.
“The goal is to have sex with the child, and generally these young people think they have found someone very special to them, so they start to chat longer and longer,” said Los Angeles police detective James Brown.
Estimates are that one out of five kids online may be solicited by a sexual predator. But there are warning signs to look out for to determine if your child might be a target.
“A child who is generally outgoing and communicative suddenly starts to withdraw, and spends excessive amounts of time on the Internet and in chat rooms,” said Brown.
Two years ago, Tracey Lamb witnessed a dramatic change in her stepdaughter, Cynthia.
“We put spyware on our computer so we could track all conversations, what every instant message was, what every e-mail consisted of, what every chat room conversation consisted of. We saw it all,” said Lamb. “Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.”
Cynthia, 16 at the time, used a library computer to find a sympathetic ear in an online chat room. She met Douglas French, a 34-year-old convicted sex offender, and eventually disappeared with him for 10 months.
What can parents do?
Here's what Internet service providers and experts say:
- Constantly monitor your child's online activity. Install service provider controls and filtering software. “Pick one that's easiest for you as the parents,” said Rice Hughes.
- Keep the computer with Internet access where you can see it. “I would rather see a child’s nose bent out of joint because their parents got too intrusive, versus have something tragic happen to them,” said Lamb.
- Warn your children about the dangers, and learn the lingo. When your kids communicate online you need to understand what they're saying. “One of the common things you'll see is a/s/l. On a chat question that means age sex and location,” said Brown. “Well, an unsuspecting child will respond with truthful information.”
- Never give out personal information.
- And what do experts say tops the to-do list? Talk to your children.
“I didn't want them to catch me, and when they started talking to me and told me that it was all right, I started getting calmer and we talked about it,” said Matthew.
For more tips on how to keep your kids safe while surfing the Internet, visit