Knoxville (WVLT) - When parents have to leave their children "home alone," during the school year, they're hoping and praying it doesn't turn into the movie version of the same name.
Referred to as "latch key kids,” the latest US Census data states one-third of all school age children in the US are, for at least some part of the week, a latch key kid.
But keeping your children safe isn't as simple as keeping your doors locked and having a list of emergency numbers.
Volunteer TV's Stacy McCloud has some information on how to keep your child safe during this internet era.
After the bell rings and the hallways are empty, children of all ages head to different places.
For millions, it's an empty home.
The summer months may seem most accessible for predators, but the school year has it's own set of concerns.
"It just makes it more adaptable for a predator to locate a child victim,” says Mel Pierce from the Knoxville Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Predators know roughly when school starts, when it ends, and when the average parent is home from work.
Combine that with the power of things like the internet and being home alone can be a troubling mix.
"Lots of times you will see questions in that first contact, like is your mom home, are you home schooled. Those questions may not seem harmful to a child, because they don't know better, but those first contacts can start the problem for that child,” says Pierce.
That's exactly why pierce says no matter your child's age, it's important to stress stranger dangers that can happen both in person and online at a very early age, well before your child ever even uses the computer.
"Teach them to respect the computer for what it is and the pros and cons, how it can be dangerous, have clear guidelines and as parents should, check on your children,” Pierce says.
Remember, it doesn't take much. Something as simple as a phone number or first and last name put online, even once, could mean in one click, a predator has your home address, perfectly mapped out.
"In a matter of seconds, even if it's a mistake, it's gonna be out there forever,” Pierce says.
In Tennessee, there is no legal age for children to stay home alone.
The state advises parents to use their best judgment, keeping the child's maturity level and safety in mind.
But it does advise children under the age of ten never be left without supervision at anytime.
We have some advice and also some alternatives for staying at home alone:
Children's Hospital and/or local authorities suggest that parents consider the following when establishing rules for their child when alone:
* Keep all contact and emergency numbers clearly posted.
* Establish where a child goes in an emergency.
* Plan and implement a fire escape plan and route
* Plan and implement a "bad weather plan" with directions for tornadoes or natural disasters
* Teach the child not to enter the house if the door is ajar or a window is broken -- go to a specified neighbor or friends house and call a parent.
* Teach children to lock all doors behind them, no matter the time of day!
* Teach children how and when to call 911 and poison control
*Teach children to call a parent, neighbor or "point person" once they arrive home after school.
* Teach children to NEVER answer the door for ANY stranger under ANY circumstance
*Establish which snacks are appropriate and the rules for cooking while home alone.
*Can children play outdoors? If so, where and how long?
*Are friends allowed over? For how long? Are there restriction on what they are allowed to do?
*Can the child watch TV and if so what programs?
*Should the time be spent doing homework or chores?
*Discuss use of pools, trampolines, skateboards, etc, when home alone.
*Can they get online? If so, establish rules and check about software programs parents can use to ensure you child has a safe online experience. If you chose to only allow children online when you are home ... consider keeping computers password protected. Also, don't forget many cell phones are internet compatible!
** Remember rules vary with a child's age and maturity level, but authorities say no matter what you implement, respect is the key **
Alternatives to staying home alone:
* check with your child's school about after school programs they offer, most do!
* what about your local community center? (for example, the boys and girls club or YMCA)
* check with authorities, they may know of some great SAFE activities in your community