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Protecting against the dangerous side of the web requires constant vigilance

Everyone knows about the yin and yang of life: There is no light without darkness, no joy without sorrow, no good without evil. So it is on the world of the internet, whose undeniable benefits are counterweighted by the web’s dank corners, where child pornographers and sexual predators constantly work, preying on the innocence and curiosity of the young.

It creates a dangerous world for children and a frightening one for parents, who cannot possibly monitor in real time everything their offspring do on their laptops and smartphones, or what they do on their friends’ technology. And yet they know – or should know – that child abusers are trolling the internet, day and night, looking for young people they can tempt into sending inappropriate pictures of themselves or even meeting and then molesting.

Child sexual predators have always been a problem, but the internet has facilitated an explosion of abuse, law enforcement officers say. Some police work full time at exposing those who work at exploiting children, an effort that requires officers to look daily at horrific images, sometimes of infants. If it’s not a losing battle, it must sometimes seem that way. There are victories along the way, but always there are more predators and always more victims.

It’s plain that police cannot do this all alone, and even while parents are overmatched by technology and such inevitable distractions as earning a living, there is surely more that many can do to protect their young children. For one, the smartphone has to be viewed as a privilege, and one whose availability can be restricted.

Similarly, the use of laptops, tablets and desktop computers needs to be restricted to public areas of the home. Parents should insist on knowing all user names and passwords, especially for social media accounts.

And with all that, parents need to be willing to monitor – yes, spy on – their children’s use of this double-edged technology. Churches, schools, scouting groups and other organizations need to play a role, together forming, as best as possible, a protective shield around those in their care.

And children, themselves, should be made aware, in an age-appropriate way, of the potential dangers lurking around the internet. That is especially true regarding strangers seeking information or friendship, even strangers they believe to be children, but who may, in fact, be predators in disguise.

That’s the practice of some predators, including Timothy Bek, a former West Seneca teacher. Bek created a false Facebook persona as a teenage girl to entice high school boys into sending him explicit photos of themselves. He was eventually caught and sentenced to 30 well-deserved years in prison.

Both sides play that game. Adopting a false persona is also one of the strategies police use to unmask child predators skulking on the internet. Mike Hockwater, a Cheektowaga detective now working for the FBI, often poses as a 12-year-old boy or a girl barely into her teens to lure child predators into identifying themselves.

It is the creepy but necessary work of catching child abusers hiding in the weeds of the internet. It also helps to ensure that other predators know the web is not a risk-free zone for them to attempt to seduce young children into sexual abuse and what can become a lifetime of emotional torment.

Those are the dangers that law enforcement officers like Hockwater and FBI Intelligence Analyst Melissa McCaffrey are up against. And given the terrible inevitability of pedophilia and the anonymity of the internet, they are dangers that police need help in reducing.

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