A Warning to Parents
January 2, 2013
By Roger Thompson

This is a personal story, but I decided to post it as a warning to other parents.

Setting the Stage

I have fourteen kids, nine of which still live at home, aged nine to sixteen. In my house, we have Windows PCs, Macs, Linux boxes, a Wii, many iPods and iPads, some Nintendo DS, and even phones with WiFi capability. In short, we have a great many, and diverse, ways to access the Internet. To keep the ones with phones safe, I only allow them to use voice and send texts, but no sending of pictures, and no web surfing. This means that, to surf the web, they have to use WiFi.

For everything else, I have two routers in the house. One is for the adults and allows unfettered access to the Internet, and the other is for the kids and has parental controls built-in. It allows me to block categories of websites, such as adult web sites, and will send me an email if anyone starts searching for undesirable content, such as drugs.

It also allows me to program it so that it goes to sleep from 9:30pm to 7am. If anyone tries to access the Internet after 9:30, it returns a web page that says “The Internet has gone to sleep. Go to bed! Love, Dad.” Heh. The nice thing about this is that it represents a bottleneck, so no matter what squirrely device or operating system they are using, they have to go through the WiFi to get to the Internet.

For the longest time, this worked great. Initially, I was inundated by reports of attempted wrong-doings, but once they realized I was on to them, it stopped. They didn’t bother trying to beat the system, because they knew the penalty for bad activity would be confiscation of their gear.

Escaping the System

I have twin sixteen-year-old boys, and on one of their computers, a role-playing site installed some client software that was particularly aggressive in trying to reach the site. This site was being vigorously blocked by the router, which in turn, was reporting vigorously to me. The episode only lasted a couple of days, until I uninstalled the aforementioned client software, and all became well again.

But after a time, I noticed that my twin boys were having more and more trouble getting up in the morning, and I wasn’t sure why. The breakthrough explanation came, not from my cunning high technology, but from a decidedly low-tech, tattle-tailing little sister. She overheard one of the twins bragging at school about having made a girlfriend online at this particular role-playing site, that he talked to his girlfriend at night, and that they both still visited the role-playing site at will.

Armed with this knowledge, I checked out the phone records and found that one twin was indeed having two-hour conversations with someone at 1am, and it became instantly obvious why he couldn’t get up in the morning. This explained one twin’s morning sleepiness, but not the other’s. It also failed to explain how they could get at the site at all, given that it was in my router’s block list.

After an appropriate discussion, we finally arrived at the truth of the matter. The second twin, who aspires to be a computer geek, had been trying to figure out the password to the adult router, found a YouTube tutorial on recovering passwords from a Mac keychain, provided you had the admin password. Happily for him, he had once been given his mother’s iTunes password, so that he could get some music, and even more happily, when he tried it, he found that it was indeed his mother’s admin password. Voila!

Naturally, I was furious with them, confiscated their equipment, and subjected them to dad-sized tongue-lashings, while secretly being impressed by their cunning. I changed passwords, and added another rule that no equipment was to be used in bedrooms, and all surfing had to be carried out at the kitchen table, which was in full view of everyone, and thought the problem was solved. But it wasn’t.

Bigger Problem than Expected

Twin Number One had decided that he was in love with his seventeen-year-old sweetheart, who lived in another state, and didn’t want to give her up. In fact, he told one of his older siblings that “Even if Mom and Dad told me to leave her alone, I will disobey them and keep in contact.” Fortunately, it turns out that older siblings are also tattle-tails, and this too, was reported to us.

I decided to investigate the seventeen-year-old girl friend and found that her cell phone number belonged not to a pretty, seventeen-year old-student, but a forty-year-old single woman from Pakistan, who lived with her uncle and brother in Florida and ran a local food market.

At first, he didn’t want to believe it, but when he texted her asking if she knew this person that I said owned the phone, she said it was because she had a used SIM card.

She never contacted him again, and gradually, other suspicious bits surfaced. He remembered, for example, that he was never supposed to call her; she had to initiate the phone call, with the explanation being that her mother would only allow her to talk at certain times. But he had called a few times anyway, and a man had answered, speaking a foreign language, and on another occasion, he’d heard people in the background speaking a language he couldn’t understand.

She was simply a forty-year-old single woman, who lived with her brother and uncle, and while she probably meant no harm at all, and was merely unhappy with her own life, at a minimum, she deceived and manipulated a young and vulnerable person. It could easily have ended so differently, and so badly, but thankfully, it didn’t. She was in another state, and he was too young to drive, and we discovered it before it escalated to dangerous levels, but I’m sharing this because it occurs to me that this is probably the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Parents, just how many of your teenagers are getting involved on these role-playing sites, and just who are they talking to?

What To Do

(1) Get yourself a router that has parental controls. They are only about $60 up front, but have a monthly subscription fee to keep updating the blacklists. It’s worth it.

(2) Take web surfing and picture-sending capability off their phones. They don’t need it, and can still talk and text at will.

(3) Most importantly, and even if you can’t follow the other steps, don’t allow computers in their bedrooms or non-public places. Make them sit where everyone can see them. The best disinfectant has always been the light of day.

(4)Talk to your kids about this. It’s just as important as talking about drugs and sex.

(5) Pay attention to what’s going on. I was a foster parent for twelve years, and one of the most cunning parenting strategies I ever learned was to pay enough attention to what’s going on that you can see problems coming before they arrive and divert around them.

(6) Get as many of these ideas in place as you can. Each layer is like a slice of Swiss cheese. Each layer has many holes, but when you have multiple layers, they tend to cover up each other’s holes, and the result is good security.

Oh, and it helps to have younger or older siblings, who have the courage to rat out wrong doings.

Keep safe, folks.

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