It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday night.

Do you know where your kids are?

Like many parents of tweens and teens, your answer could be that they are home, in a different room, on the computer — safe and sound.

But are they?

We ask that question in light of several arrests in Clinton County in which men — who in some cases live hundreds of miles away — are accused of driving to this county after chatting with someone they believed to be a teen girl, traveling to meet her here and then subsequently being arrested onsite for attempted enticement of a minor.

In fact, court records and testimony indicate the men weren’t talking to young girls at all, but to officers who are part of an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force set up to protect children from online predators. If convicted on a local — or state — charge,  those accused face up to two years in prison. Federally, where most of the Clinton County cases have been prosecuted, the charge carries a minimum prison sentence of 10 years.  To get to those alleged predators, local officers create online profiles posing as minors and wait to be contacted in chat rooms as part of their work.

While they have netted nine arrests of men accused of attempting to entice away minors, one of the local officers on the task force has estimated he’s chatted with up to 1,000 individuals in the past year who had sexual conversations with, but never attempted to meet, a person they believed to be a minor.

Knowing that got us to thinking: If there are that many people who are chatting with people they believe to minors, then how many are successfully chatting online with young girls or boys? How many then are able to take it a step further and successfully meet their target in person?

We obviously never  will know those numbers, although we do know it happens, based on news reports in which a young person is reported missing, but as it turned out fled the area with an older person they met on the Internet.

It is a parent’s worst nightmare — a total violation of what we hold sacred.

So how do you stop it from happening to your children?

Prevention through communication is key.

Make sure you set up Internet usage rules and that your child is aware of inappropriate behavior that signals someone is trying to groom them as a target. Talk to them about Internet risks or have them talk to a trusted adult, purchase parental control software and make sure home computers are in a common area.

Keep teens out of online chatrooms. Interestingly, older teens are more at risk of being sexually exploited because their Internet use is often unsupervised, and the teens are more likely to talk about personal and sexual matters than a younger minor. Younger kids can face danger from online predators because the teens have a more trusting, unassuming nature; troubled teens looking for an understanding adult or emotionally vulnerable teen girls also are at risk.

As you can see, there are a lot of things that can be done — should be done — by parents to make sure their kids are safe online.

A kid may squawk, thinking privacy is being invaded, but in the end — when weighing that against the possibility of him or her being targeted by predators — having your kid mad at you for a little while definitely is the lesser of two evils.

This is Charlene Bielema’s weekly take on issues in the Clinton area. She is a Fulton, Ill., native and has been employed with the Clinton Herald since June 1995. She has been the Herald’s editor since 2002.