BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) – As police work to piece together the online correspondence that prompted Brooke Bennett of Braintree to arrange a meeting with an apparent stranger, experts are warning parents to keep tabs on their kids’ Internet use.

Gary Kessler, who teaches digital forensics at Champlain College, said a very low-tech approach can help prevent problems.

“You show an interest in kids’ lives, and you communicate those interests,” he told The Burlington Free Press. “It comes down to what kind of relationship you have with your kids.”

Bennett, who is 12, was last seen Wednesday in Randolph, where her uncle dropped her off after she said she wanted to meet a friend. Police now believe she may have been meeting someone she communicated with on the MySpace social networking Web site.

As outreach coordinator for the Vermont Internet Crimes Task Force, Kessler explores with communities how best to guide virtual encounters. He said it begins at home.

“I’ve never been an advocate for logging where my kids go or filtering what they see because ultimately, they’ll just leave the house and use another computer,” he said. “I keep a computer where we can watch what they’re looking at. When they reach a certain age, we can discuss what the risks are.”

He said parents can help, just by being parents.

“When a kid is ready to drive, we don’t just hand them the keys, do we?”

Kessler said young people are vulnerable to quick invitations of intimacy. And they can be cavalier with personal information.

“We warn kids to be careful around strangers, but we don’t always define what a stranger is,” he said. “Anyone you meet online is a stranger.”

Anonymity emboldens the timid, said Burlington Police Chief Michael Schirling, whose department coordinates statewide efforts to solve and prevent Internet crimes against children.

“It’s an inherent hazard on the Web, and works both ways,” Schirling said. “The youth population enjoys playing at different personas because it’s fun or cool. Offenders leverage anonymity and lie about their own identities.

“It’s a dangerous combination,” he continued. “People say things to each other without having to overcome the fear of getting to know them. The Internet shouldn’t be the social surrogate of society.”

Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

AP-ES-06-28-08 1743EDT

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