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Back to Archives | Back to April 2007 Contents 

NetSmartz: A Comprehensive Approach to Internet Safety and Awareness

By R. Gil Kerlikowske, Chief of Police, and Malinda Wilson, Detective, Seattle, Washington, Police Department


he Seattle Police Department has been an active member of an Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force since 1999. The goals of the task force are to investigate computer crimes against children and to educate the public about such crime trends as they relate to children. Issues of Internet safety and lack of awareness among teen users is a major focus of the task force today, and this article identifies some of the tools that can help police executives address Internet safety in their communities.


Awareness

The first step in the educational battle for Internet safety is awareness. Today’s technology is more advanced, but the nature of a teenager has not changed. The World Wide Web has vast riches; it is a phenomenal invention that is opening up to the teens’ world to news, statistics, geography, history. Information that would take hours to find doing research the old-fashioned way can be found quickly now. The Internet also offers a view of different cultures and develops social awareness worldwide. The Internet provides teens with insight and perception never before available at such an early age. For all the good, however, there are also many potential risks associated with Internet use.

The child who meets someone online and goes missing; the child who creates an outlet for his or her alter ego, unwittingly or sometimes intentionally inviting trouble; the all-too-prevalent collector of child pornography and the people who use it to groom children to fulfill the predator’s desire—all represent potential risks. Giving teens and their parents up-to-date information about the dangers empowers both to make better choices.

The Seattle Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children/Child Exploitation Unit has presented Internet safety programs to tens of thousands of community members: elementary, middle, and high school students; educators; parents; social and health service professionals; mental health professionals; state prosecutors; and law enforcement officers.

To improve Internet safety, law enforcement must do more than react to complaints. Officers have an opportunity to be proactive and have a positive influence on their communities by providing education on Internet safety and awareness. When law enforcement officers enter the classroom they come with firsthand knowledge of the problem and a level of experience and credibility not available from members of other disciplines. They can deliver an authoritative message about Internet safety and also reinforce the idea that a police officer is someone who understands and responds to community needs through innovation.


Speaking Points for Chiefs

Police chiefs are often asked to speak before groups on a variety of subjects, and Internet safety is becoming a popular topic. One technique for framing the discussion is to talk about being a teenager today. Chiefs can point out the following concepts:

  • Teens are growing up in an age of instant gratification. The Internet is often a vehicle that exacerbates this phenomenon. The notion of parenting in a high-tech world is actually no different from parenting in previous times; a challenge is a challenge.

  • Monitoring teens’ online activities may seem like an invasion of their privacy, and the thought of asking their children for the passwords to their online accounts can make some parents apprehensive. But having the children’s online account passwords can help parents make sure that their children are the same people in cyberspace as in the real world. And if a child has met a friend online and chooses to meet the friend in person and then goes missing, having the password to the online account will expedite law enforcement’s attempts to locate the child.

  • Once children reach the magical age of 12, parents look at the wonderful children they have raised. They know how to dial 911 in an emergency and not to open the door or talk to strangers. They have not given their parents a moment of concern, and there’s no reason to assume things won’t continue along this same line. Parents allow children that age to stay home alone to watch TV, read, talk endlessly on the phone, and of course surf the Internet.

But there are dangers on the Internet for the youth. Quite simply, puberty and the Internet can be a dangerous mix. Without checks and balances established for home computer use, the parent might as well drop the child off at the entrance of a dark alley, not knowing what’s in there, and tell her to have a good time.


How Teens Perceive the Internet

More and more teens’ social lives revolve around the Internet and making lifelong friends with people they might never meet in the real world. In this environment, it is easier to pretend to be something one is not. Truth is not necessary because no one will know. Every day, teens are entering a social cyberworld with false identities. The phenomenon of reinvention is more interesting. Teens lie about themselves online, but for some reason they are willing to believe what complete strangers say about themselves.

Wishing for something different can make it come true in the virtual world. If teens do not like certain aspects of what they have been given naturally, it is very easy to gain the attributes they wish they had. Lose a few pounds? Change their hair color? Be a little older? None of these is a problem in cyberspace. One can even become a wild child online, a place to let one’s alter ego have a life. Posting provocative pictures taken with a camera phone and downloading them to a social networking Web site can seem fun, but it is essentially playing with fire. The stark reality is that once an image is on the Internet, it could be there forever. There’s no getting it back once someone decides he wants it.

Still other teens will be completely honest online, to the point of making targets of themselves. They have no concept of how big the world really is and are naïve in thinking they can control what they post. The word private to them means, “It’s on there for only my friends to see.” Innocently, they believe that no one else will look. But predators look, as do colleges and potential employers who search social networking sites for material that can help them judge an applicant’s character. Teens put comments on their Web sites such as “I’m bored; give me a call” and they include their cell phone numbers. They lie about their ages to create their social networking Web site only to reveal personal information later, such as their true age, their full name, their birth date, their hometown, their school, and when they are normally home. Many teenagers believe nothing bad can happen to them.

Teenagers who are not popular in the real world can find a kind of substitute popularity online by adding more friends to their social networking site. Who needs real-life friends when they have so many people online willing to chat and tell them how cool they are? Children are having 10-minute conversations with strangers online and suddenly they have a new best friend. Teens are substituting virtual social lives with friends who often have no faces or verifiable identities for social lives in the physical world. Kids are making friends with people they meet in gaming rooms and virtual-world sites. Some become so obsessed with and absorbed in the game or virtual world that they lose the drive to achieve in the real world. It can become such an addiction that intervention is necessary.

When an attraction to someone at school is not reciprocated, the days of nursing bruised egos are over. Within minutes the aggrieved can be connected online to someone who will fill his or her head with flattery and the romantic notion of an actual relationship. There is no shortage of people waiting to exploit a child’s vulnerability. Female teens knowingly chat online with adult men. In their quest for romance they fall for flattery, developing intimate relationships, all the while thinking they are the only one. Predators are adept at entering a teenager’s world and demonstrating that they understand her better than she understands herself, and definitely better than her parents do. Most teens have insecurities, and Internet predators play on those insecurities, perhaps agreeing with every negative thing the teen has to say about a parent such as “Your parents are unreasonable, not allowing a computer in your room” or “Why shouldn’t you be able to stay out until 2:00 in the morning? After all, you are 13. That’s practically a woman.” These comments from an adult should be sending up red flags for our teens. Unfortunately, teens have a difficult time recognizing the nice person they have met online as a predator. In their minds, the two do not match.

What about those tough questions surrounding puberty, the developing body, and sex? If the all-knowing best friend doesn’t have the answers, someone online will be happy to assist. It generally starts as a friendly nonthreatening contact, perhaps in a chat room. The child feels at ease with the new friend, who eventually asks if she has any questions he could help with.


Pornography

Today any type of pornography is but a few keyword searches and a mouse click away for the Internet user. Parents need to remember that whatever an adult can find online, a child can find. Today’s teens are exposed to graphic and depraved content and probably lack the maturity to put it in perspective. Their coping and processing skills have not developed enough to properly take in what they are viewing, and it is impossible to un-see what has been seen. The teen’s concept of what is considered normal can be skewed in the absence of guidance from a parent or other trusted adult.

It is a normal part of teen development to be curious about pornographic material. Parental awareness about the potential risks in online searches and open communication between parent and child can help establish boundaries needed to keep them from exploring certain areas before they can handle it.


Cyberbullying

Online harassment and bullying have become increasingly vicious and frequent. What is the big draw to this type of behavior? It is much easier to be mean to someone when not looking them in the eye. But once an online attack has started, whether it is a vicious rumor or a morphed image, there can be no taking it back.


Adult Responsibilities

What are responsible adults supposed to do? For a start, they can make themselves aware of the potential risks and the ways to report online abuse, talk openly with their kids about Internet dangers, and take advantage of resources such as basic Internet use programs for parents and safe Internet sites for children. When people are made aware of potential dangers, they tend to make different decisions about how to proceed; it is similar to taking an alternate route when a mountain pass has avalanche warnings. Teens tend to make more responsible choices when they understand the potential risks. And it’s the trusted adult who makes them aware of those risks.

Open communication between trusted adult and child is a key component of successful family relations. But it is often difficult to achieve if not already accomplished by the time the child is a teen. Finding the balance between nurturing and setting boundaries can be tricky but necessary, especially when parenting in cyberspace. Children like boundaries and they respond positively to rules, even to the point that they actually feel loved when they are reasonably disciplined. Several programs have been developed to help families find a balance for online rules, safety, and awareness.


NetSmartz

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, together with the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, has created an Internet safety and awareness program called NetSmartz. The concept was developed to help parents, educators, and law enforcement officers teach children from an early age how to avoid dangers online. The NetSmartz program strongly advocates open communication and sharing in the family setting while providing an understanding of potential troubles that exist in the online world. The NetSmartz program consists of four PowerPoint presentations that have been created as educational tools for law enforcement and educators. Substantial research and testing went into development to ensure they are all age appropriate. The program uses a multimedia approach combining talking points and videos of real-life children sharing stories of the situations they found themselves in as a result of risky online activity. To assist a new presenter, each comes with a guide that provided talking points for slides and videos.

Younger Elementary School Children: The two elementary school presentations are colorful, creative, and interactive. They feature a robot character named Clicky who performs a rap about online safety that children respond to with enthusiasm and can be heard singing long after the presentation is over. Because of the short attention span of small children, Clicky often makes a clicking sound when he’s talking to the kids, designed to bring the children’s focus back to the program. Assisted by an accompanying script, the presenter can interact with the characters on the screen.

Teaching children about Internet safety without scaring them is the primary concern of NetSmartz. All of the characters are fun, colorful, and nonthreatening. Four basic rules make up the first level, which is designed for children in kindergarten through the second grade: check first with an adult you trust; take a friend; remember that it is all right tell people no; and tell a trusted adult if something makes you feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. Four outlaw characters are used to teach children Internet safety. Look at Dis Louie tries to get kids to open pictures that are mean and nasty. Meet-Me Mack entices kids to meet with him without their parents knowing. Potty-Mouth Pete is designed to teach kids not to use rude, offensive language online. And Wanta Know Wally tells youngsters not to give out personal information to people they meet online.

Older Elementary School Children: The program’s next level is for the older elementary school student and features the brother-and-sister team of Webster and Nettie. Nettie is the wiser big sister who teaches her younger brother, Webster, how to be safe online. Nettie introduces five main characters to watch out for. They are designed to build on the previous four and are age appropriate, although the first character, Follow-You Fiona, can be a bit scary. Fiona is a predatory-looking, sinister female character. Fiona’s message is that someone may pretend to be the children’s friend trying to gain trust so they can find out who and where they are to do mean and illegal things to them. Hot-Head is a fireball who educates kids about not using rude or offensive language. Numbut is a drone-type character that spends all his free time on the computer and needs to get a life. He has eyes that spiral and a pillow attached to his bottom. The Oogle has one large eye and watches what the user does online and operates like a computer cookie. The last character is Spamazoid, who resembles a potato with mold spots. Spamazoid teaches kids about junk e-mails and why you shouldn’t open them. These characters and programs show children how to be safer online without their even knowing they’re learning valuable safety lessons. Aided by the NetSmartz presentations, Internet safety is something children will grow up with as a natural part of safety lessons, like looking both ways before crossing the street.


Middle and High School Students: The third level of the program is designed for middle and high school students and is preferably conducted by law enforcement officers because of their firsthand knowledge and experience with the issues. They can include details about real-life investigations with their presentation to make a stronger impression on the teens. Here content is more mature, delivering messages through videos of true stories demonstrating how someone can track his victim with a simple Internet ID, warning signs for when an adult is trying to groom or manipulate children into relationships, and how naive, unaware activity can make them targets. The program encourages discussions on cyberbullying, posting pictures online, protecting personal information, and respecting copyright laws. The core safety tip advocates talking to a trusted adult if something upsets them.

Parents: The final presentation is designed for the parents and should be delivered by law enforcement officers. The program contains much of the same information offered to the teens but goes into more detail about child pornography, risks of exposure to inappropriate material, sexual solicitation, harassment and bullying, and theft of personal information, among other online threats. The content of the presentation is not appropriate for children.

The program reminds parents of why children are vulnerable to threats online: by reason of their natural curiosity, children are easily led by adults; they need attention and affection from people outside the family; and they have an urge to defy their parents. The NetSmartz program points out that children do not have to be physically touched to become victims. Strangers who rob children of their innocence by introducing sex or showing them pornography are making them victims. Understanding why teens do not confide will encourage open dialogue between parent and teen.

And finally, the programs help parents to implement Internet safety tips for the home: keep the computer in a common room; keep communication lines open between teens and parents; and identify what sites children are allowed to visit, whom they are allowed to talk to online, who is a trusted adult, what information they are allowed to share online, and what a stranger is.

The parent program also contains supplemental material for the presenter. Colorful handouts provide online safety tips, pledges for the various age groups, and information on how to integrate the NetSmartz program into homes and schools. Also featured is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s CyberTipline, where an individual can report child exploitation, missing children, and Internet abuse of children.

To complement its presentations, the NetSmartzkids.org Web site has been developed for the youngest Internet users. It’s a safe Web site for kids to play and learn on. NetSmartzkids.org features games, puzzles, songs, activity cards, and videos designed to teach kids how to be safer online. The children absorb the message while having fun.

In addition to the NetSmartzkids.org Web site, there is another site, NetSmartz.org , for teens, parents, educators, and law enforcement. All of the NetSmartz resources are available free to the public. The site contains activity cards, videos of real teen experiences, information from child development expert Sharon Cooper, and videos that introduce viewers to blogs (short for Web logs) and bulletin boards, chat lingo, online pornography, risks of electronic entertainment and gaming, and the types of criminal activity teens could become involved with and how to keep them safe.

No one person or agency is capable of reaching out and disseminating such an important message as Internet safety and awareness to a society grown dependent on the Internet for existence. Working together, law enforcement leaders, educators, and parents can make great strides toward a safer, more enriching Internet life not only for kids but also for themselves. Adults are not without vulnerability and are just as susceptible to flattery, fraud, and deceit if they are naïve about the risks of online socializing, purchasing, and financial management. Yet comprehending the world that kids are growing up in, knowing and understanding how the Internet works, investing in computer monitoring programs, using Internet safety tools already on the computer, and developing open communication skills with children will go a long way toward creating a safer Internet experience for everyone. ■
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From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 4, April 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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