With new apps and websites popping up constantly, open communication about the risks is key to protecting children online, experts said. Even on common sites such as Facebook, children face risks of blackmail with nude pictures, being lured into a physical meeting with a predator or even sex trafficking.
It was a major focus at the annual school resource officers’ conference, where about 250 school resource officers gathered at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton this week for an annual conference on keeping kids safe. Those in attendance represented nine states and, for the first time, two Canadian provinces, said Lynn Chernich, who organized the event put on by the National Criminal Justice Training Center, based at Fox Valley Technical College.
Through family discussions, parents should be open and honest about the risks online, in age-appropriate ways, said Eric Szatkowski, an Internet Crimes Against Children agent with the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation. If a parent just blocks websites or uses monitoring software, the child could still be exposed to exploitation at any wireless Internet hotspot or at a friend’s house, he said.
Can’t keep up
The fast-paced nature of technology means parents must have open dialogues about the risks and how to be responsible online, lessons that span all forms of technology and are timeless, experts say.
Parents can’t keep up.
“More important than monitoring would be to have open communication, because technology changes so fast,” said Joseph Mech, a special agent with the Wisconsin DCI.
Perpetrators often count on kids being too ashamed to go to their parents if they get into trouble, so reassuring kids that they can approach mom and dad after getting too close with someone online is key, officials said.
John Halligan, who speaks nationally about what he learned from the 2003 suicide of his son, who was cyberbullied, told school resource officers that they need to be approachable, so when a child is too embarrassed to go to their parents with a problem, they have a “go-to adult” at school.
“You are the key to solving these problems when they’re too afraid to go to their parents,” Halligan said.
And, experts said, the perpetrators count on kids’ naivete.
“It’s like having a chessmaster play a game of chess against a typical 14-year-old kid,” Mech said.
Szatkowski said the most important warning is not to accept a friend request from someone a user doesn’t know — tricky to avoid for today’s youth, for whom perceived popularity on social media can unfortunately be tied to self-esteem, he said.
Pat Pedersen, who served as Neenah High School’s resource officer for 16 years, said he constantly advises students not to accept requests from someone they don’t know.
“They accept them as a friend and that person can kind of view their profile, view their pictures and just gather a lot of information about that person,” he said.
Szatkowski said kids think they’re invincible, that they’d never be tricked. “Nobody thinks it happens to them.”
Cyberbullying and blackmail
But risks of humiliation also lie among kids’ peers in school, and Halligan emphasized how a leading cause of suicide is an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, often after being humiliated.
After Halligan’s 13-year-old son Ryan died by suicide, the father found that kids at school had spread rumors and made fun of him online in the weeks leading up to the death.
Halligan urged officers to hold the bystanders — a bully’s audience — accountable, as they enable and encourage it.
“If we chip away at the audience we chip away at the incentive to bully,” he said.
And as these issues spill from the weekend and weekday nights into issues at school, he urged officers and parents to emphasize the risks of taking nude pictures.
“They don’t understand that these pictures never stay with the person you sent them to,” he said.
Source: Post Crescent