If you have children and you watched any of "Dateline's" "To Catch a Predator" series, you're scared. You have to be. And you have to wonder: Could this happen to my kids?
Well, there's one piece of advice everyone gives parents to keep their children safe from predators and all the other scary parts of the Internet -- keep the computer out of the bedroom. The advice is so common, it's now trite.
It might also be the most commonly ignored advice in parenting today. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, twice as many kids have computers in their bedrooms today as did five years ago.
Forget the bedtime story. These days, many kids go to bed, pull up the covers and just start chatting with friends online.
Perhaps that explains why so many kids are so sleepy in school these days. Hard figures are hard to come by, but both parents and teachers will tell anyone who'll listen that classrooms are full of bleary-eyed kids who've been up all night text-messaging and e-mailing their friends. A U.K. researcher recently released a study indicating that 20 percent of children there sleep at least two hours less each night than their parents, and she blamed computers, games and televisions in the bedroom.
Unmonitored bedroom Internet access exposes kids to awful people, like those who showed up at "Dateline's" rented house full of hidden cameras. But even if you mistakenly believe your child is safe from predators, a bedroom computer creates another, less dramatic but much more common problem -– sleep-deprived kids. The U.K. study indicated that two-thirds of kids are sleep-deprived because of gadgets. And in preliminary results of research now being conducted by i-Safe America, 22 percent of student-age kids admit they send instant messages while their parents think they're asleep.
Family therapist Susan Shankle says the problem is now so common she asks questions about the location of child computers in her initial client assessment.
"I ask if there are computers in the bedroom, and 'Are you sure your child is getting enough sleep?" she said. "I always advise parents to take them out, but often the advice isn't followed. It's a big problem, and it's only getting bigger."
10 percent of 8- to 10-year-olds have bedroom Internet
Shankle's impressions are borne out by research. The Kaiser Family Foundation released a study in May indicating that 31 percent of kids 8-18 have a computer in the bedroom, and 20 percent have Internet access -- double the amount from five years ago. One in 10 children between 8 and 10 years old now has bedroom Internet access. And 1 in 4 high-school-aged kids uses instant message software in the bedroom.
"It seems to be a trend, and I suspect it will continue," said Vicky Rideout, a researcher at Kaiser.
Why are parents ignoring the bedroom computer advice, even after warnings as dire as "Dateline's" predator program's? One reason is convenience, Rideout said.
"Parents don't want competition for the computer, so they give kids their own," she said. "That's the main reasons kids have TV in their rooms, too."
Wireless makes it worse
There was a time when a bedroom computer, disconnected from the Internet, did not pose this menacing threat. As long as no one strung Ethernet cable into the kids' room, there was no way for kids to get on the Internet and no way for predators to get to the kids. But home wireless networks have exploded in popularity. If you don't have it, your neighbors probably do. Barring military-grade jamming technology, there's really no way to keep this floating Internet out other than keeping the computer out.
Perhaps many parents think they can keep watch over computer use in the bedroom. Fat chance, says family therapist Barbara Melton. Kids will go to great lengths to outfox their parents and stay online when they should be sleeping, she said.
"I knew one 16-year-old who stuffed a towel under the door so his (parents) couldn't see the light from the computer," she said. "Other kids dim their monitors.... This might be new to parents, but if you bring this up with kids, they all know about it."
Staring at a computer is also among the worst things someone can do before going to bed, Shankle said, because it activates the brain in a way that makes it harder to fall asleep. She recommended cutting off computer use at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
But that's not happening. Shankle thinks the problem is so widespread that late-night computer use, fed by the addictive quality of the Internet, might even be contributing to increased diagnosis of attention deficit disorders, Shankle said.
"Sleep deprivation and too much computer look like ADHD," said Shankle.
All this late-night Internet use might seem anathema to some adults, who couldn't imagine staying up all night to type messages to friends. But Sandra Calvert, professor of psychology and director of the Child Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, said teenagers' diurnal sleep rhythms are quite different from adults', meaning they are more alert at night. Bedroom Internet access only fans that flame.
Calvert recommends keeping computers out of the bedroom, but she thinks it's even more important to teach kids about the potential pitfalls of being online all the time.
"They're going to have access to technology. If they don't have it, their friends do. So parents need to educate them and empower them," she said.
With handhelds coming, it'll only get harder
That's good advice, given that new technology means the Internet, increasingly, is not limited to computers anyway. Plenty of cell phones allow Internet access, video downloads and games. So simply keeping a computer out of the bedroom will someday soon provide only a small measure of safety, if any, said Kaiser's Rideout.
"As it all jumps onto handhelds, those rules will be irrelevant," she said -- making a parent's role in separating the Sandman from the Internet all the more essential, both to keep kids safe from predators and to get them ready for school the next day.
If you feel inspired to speak out about "Dateline's" "Predator" package, or about the trouble parents face keeping their kids safe, feel free to post your comments here. You can also visit the lesson plan we've set up, with links to various videos and discussion questions for families and classrooms. It's designed to help kick-start a conversation with kids. Or if you're just looking for quick tips, we also have set up age-specific advice for parents at this link, with help from WiredSafety.org's Parry Aftab.