The Internet has become the favorite pastime for youngsters at the Santa Ana Boys and Girls Club, surpassing swimming, soccer and dance.
Almost half of the children in the United States use the Internet for homework, research and games, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
But it can also be a dangerous place where children may be approached by molesters or child pornography purveyors pretending to be other children.
To protect children, the Santa Ana club used a $10,000 grant from the Los Angeles Times Holiday Campaign for the NetSmartz Workshop, developed by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The Holiday Campaign raises money for nonprofits in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
The workshop uses interactive games, stories and tests with three central messages:
* Tell an adult if someone is making you uncomfortable.
* Do not give out personal information.
* Never agree to meet anyone in person.
The guidelines may seem simple but they can be easily ignored or forgotten by a child who thinks he has found a new friend, said James Brewster, president and CEO of the Santa Ana club.
"Your newest 12-year-old girlfriend could be a 55-year-old pedophile," he said.
The Santa Ana club has 12 computers with Internet access and 7,800 children who use the facility each year, Brewster said.
"You can't talk about logical consequences to a 6-year-old," Brewster said.
"Their brains are not equipped to do that yet."
NetSmartz uses games like "Who's Your Friend on the Internet?" to help children become more alert to online dangers. The message: Don't trust anyone on the Internet, even if the person seems to be just like you.
The workshop uses different programs for different age groups.
In the past year, about one in five children online received a sexual solicitation or approach, according to Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth, a national survey of 1,501 children.
One in 33 received an aggressive sexual solicitation -- a solicitor who asked to meet somewhere, called on the telephone; or sent regular mail, money, or gifts; and one in four had an unwanted exposure to explicit pictures, the survey found.
The program, which was launched at the club this summer, is voluntary. The goal is to have 100 children complete the workshop this year, Brewster said.
HOW TO GIVE
The annual Holiday Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, which this year will match the first $800,000 raised at 50 cents on the dollar.
Donations (checks or money orders) supporting the Holiday Campaign should be sent to: L.A. Times Holiday Campaign, File 56986, Los Angeles, CA 90074-6986.
Do not send cash. Credit card donations can be made on the Web site: www.latimes.com/holidaycampaign.
All donations are tax-deductible. Contributions of $50 or more may be published in The Times unless a donor requests otherwise; acknowledgment cannot be guaranteed. For more information call (800) LATIMES, Ext. 75771.