Detective Richard Wistocki, a child cyber crimes expert based in Illinois, will give a “Cyber Parenting” talk on Jan. 10 at Owatonna Middle School, focusing on the dangers children face on their phones, tablets and computers every day without realizing it. The event, sponsored by Owatonna Public Schools and the Exchange Club Center for Family Unity — an Owatonna-based nonprofit serving Dodge, Freeborn, Rice, Steele and Waseca counties — aims to provide background and resources to those looking to protect children from cyberbullying and other online dangers.
It will also be free and livestreamed, though not recorded.
Accordion to Kathey Huisman, supervised visitation coordinator at the Center for Family Unity, part of the risk children face online in the modern era is the long-lasting consequences of the choices they and their peers make.
“They take pictures that they think are completely innocent, but they’re not and they never go away,” she said.
Huisman went on to describe how some children and teenagers use what are called secret photo “vaults,” which are disguised as calculator apps on their smartphones, but actually store secret photographs and videos, often inappropriate ones they’ve taken of themselves. Without parents’ knowledge, many children then walk around with those photos and videos stored on the app that can find their way into the hands of bad actors through hacking or other manipulation.
Once an explicit photo is in the hands of a predator, a dangerous cycle can begin as the predator uses the material as blackmail to solicit more material or other favors.
Other dangers can arise during online gaming, where adults can alter their voices with voice modulators to sound younger or type into chat forums pretending to be somebody else.
“It’s so easy for someone to just pop in and be like, ‘Oh, I know your friend John from school,’ and there’s a lot of Johns at school,” said Justine McKenna, training and education coordinator at the Center.
These online relationships can often spiral out of control as kids offer too much information about themselves without realizing what they’re doing, after which they might be too afraid of getting in trouble to tell their parents or other adults at school what’s going on. According to McKenna, parents are not aware of the prevalence of these types of threats, adding she herself was not aware until recently of the extent of the problem. And with a sharp uptick in online activity since the pandemic — especially for educational purposes — there are more opportunities than ever for kids’ privacy to be breached.
Even school computers, though safer than other devices, can pose a danger, said Jim Barnes, interim executive director of the Center.
“Schools do everything they can, but some of these people are working faster than anything we can keep up with,” he said, adding that parents have to be diligent and make sure they’re communicating with their children, even if it’s upsetting or invasive. “We have to communicate with kids and say, ‘If something feels weird, just tell me. If you feel unsafe, come to me, you’re not gonna get in trouble.’”
At the talk next week, Barnes said ways to monitor children’s online activity without invading privacy will be discussed, among other tips parents and guardians can arm themselves with to keep their children safe.
The Cyber Parenting talk is to be one of three classes the Center plans on giving in the coming months, the second focusing on mental health and suicide while the third focuses on drugs and alcohol.
While nothing is set in stone, the Center is considering offering symposium classes roughly once a season.
Reach Reporter Julian Hast at 507-333-3133. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.