GUFS Internet Safety Program Spells Out Dangers and Offers Guidance for Parents

 
“We need them to understand that there is a human being at the end of every click.”

 By Alison Rooney

 After spending the afternoon of Oct. 4 conducting Internet safety workshops with Garrison School 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, Thomas Grimes, of NY Finest Speakers, turned his attention to the guardians of their welfare: parents.  The second component of this program, brought to the school by the Garrison Children’s Education Fund, was a presentation geared towards parents of children of all ages, elementary through college, on the pitfalls, some obvious, many obscure, of today’s online world.
       Grimes, a former New York City police detective, and parent of two college-age sons, did not mince words in his very detailed rundown of the dangers children face when navigating the net.  His audio-visual presentation included image after image of real children whose lives were ended or irreparably harmed through situations arrived at through Internet predation. He emphasized a three-pronged approach to making children aware of the issues, saying kids need to learn “why they need to protect themselves; how they can protect themselves; and from whom they should protect themselves.” 
       Grimes listed the main Internet threats as: sexual predators, identity thieves, repercussion, cyber-bullying, cyber-harassment, cyber-stalking, cyber-threats and “sexting/sextortion.”  He then delved into each of these dangers, and offered advice on how best to set up a structure in which these things are less likely to happen, and, in some cases, how to deal with an unfortunate situation should it occur.
       According to Grimes, there are currently about 31,000 registered sex offenders in New York State, with 41 of those in Putnam County.  Those who operate through the Internet do so via direct and indirect online encounters.  In a description of direct encounters, Grimes used the relatively new social networking sites Chatroulette and Omegle as examples.  Both of these are interactive sites with seemingly “random” encounters, which can then be used by a knowing predator to locate and manipulate potential victims.  Both sites involve webcams, and by picking up on background details, predators can make determinations without children’s awareness that they are sharing any information. He informed parents of “Chatroulette parties” unknown to many adults, in which groups of kids get together and appear in footage which is then viewed by a stranger.  He described this as similar to “Skyping random people.” And described it as a currently popular activity for middle and high schoolers.
       Another lurking danger is “video phishing,” a method in which IP addresses allow use of a mapping service to determine location, thus making “random” online activities not random at all.  Other techniques are using celebrity pictures as a lure, and then substituting shocking images, with children’s reactions surreptitiously filmed.
       Citing a statistic that 40 percent of online sex solicitations take place in chat rooms, Grimes noted that predators often take an extended period of time to “groom” a victim.  This can be months-long, and subtle, beginning with an online friendship, advancing to private chats, then escalating to an exchange of phone calls and sometimes letters, and finally, a suggestion of a face-to-face meeting.  Grimes described the most vulnerable victims as not just the lonely or upset kids one might imagine, but also kids who question their sexual orientation, online and real world risk-takers, and kids who participate in more complex interactive Internet activities (including Xbox gaming) as well as those with a history of abuse.  Grimes said that 75 percent of victims are girls, and that 99 percent of the perpetrators are male.
       In a detailed examination of Facebook, Grimes offered the sobering statistic that with approximately 545 million users, Facebook would now place third in a list of the most populous nations in the world—after China and India and just ahead of the United States.  Calling the provision of name, date of birth and actual picture a “cardinal sin,” he urged substituting another image for the picture, and also watching out for all of the birthday messages, which provide a date of birth even if one isn’t listed.  An anecdote he related about his college-age son and information sharing brought home the point that this is not a problem that ends with high school graduation, but one that can trail anyone through young adulthood and beyond.  He stressed the importance of making sure all privacy settings are adjusted to the most restrictive, “Friends only” level.
       With Facebook and similar sites, Grimes urged parents to –, first and foremost — insist on becoming “Friends” with their child, with a promise made to be unobtrusive.  He then told parents to go through each person on the “Friends” list, and delete anyone not personally known to the child.  He said that often predators latch on to an image of a child, and while they may be unable to obtain permission from the child to “friend” that child, they then research and attempt to “friend” all of that child’s “friends” with the goal that later on, once the child sees that they theoretically have many mutual friends, the child will relax and “friend” them back.  Once again, the predators are willing to take the time to create this situation.
       Using the “Search and Browse” feature on Facebook, Grimes produced a screen snapshot showing that by inputting just a few ‘find this’ requests, he was able to determine that there were 1,279 viewable profiles of 18-year-olds within ten miles of the Garrison zip code. Evidently many underage Facebook users tend to automatically give their age as 18.  Another of the less-known pitfalls Grimes mentioned was that by not putting their year of graduation, which many underage Facebook users choose to do, it sends out a red flag to predators that this indeed is an underage child.
       Grimes urged all parents to communicate their fears and requests for changes to Facebook constantly.  He said that in response to a deluge of complaints, recent Facebook privacy changes have included a default to a “private” setting if the user (puts that he/she) is under 17, a guaranteed 72-hour response to complaints, and a High School only section.
       Suggesting careful scrutiny of all “groups pages,” Grimes gave examples of after-the-fact investigations which picked up many clues into children’s dangerous activities. Offering numerous examples, Grimes also spelled out the dangers of giving out seemingly innocuous, but actually detailed information on sites such as Twitter and Formspring, which can alert a potential predator as to where a child lives or goes to school, what foods he or she likes, that he or she doesn’t get along with his/her parents, etc.
       In discussing cyber-bullying, Grimes put up slide after slide of poignant images of children who committed suicide after being taunted online.  He cited this as the most common Internet problem for students and stated that those most affected are between 12 and 17 years old, and that 60 percent of cyber-bullies will be convicted of a crime by the age of 24.  He urged parents to stress to their children that “stop/block/tell” is the way to go with bullying, and that children should never respond directly to bullying, and certainly never agree to meet to discuss an issue brought up through bullying, but should bring the bullying to the attention of a parent or trusted adult.  On the flip side, he told parents to communicate to their children the importance of never posting something online that they would not say face to face.
       Cyber-stalking occurs most often after break-ups, while cyber-harassment is something else entirely: creating a profile page and using the identity of someone else in order to harass. “Sexting” and “sextortion” can be categorized as cyber-stalking, in that the “sextortion” frequently occurs after a break-up.  Grimes mentioned that 12 states are now prosecuting teenagers for sending sexual images of themselves in text messages, and to tell teens that if they forward a “sext,” they can be arrested for doing so.
       Grimes concluded his presentation with a discussion of “repercussions,” stating that anything posted online during youth is basically “stapled to their resume forever,” and that kids should be told that “if you don’t want your parents to see it, you shouldn’t be posting it.”  He described the practice of graduating college seniors “de-fun-ing” (sic) their online social networking pages before launching their careers.
       Throughout the talk, Grimes emphasized the mission statement of his organization: “We believe it’s smarter to teach children to use the Internet safely, rather than block or restrict their use.” Throughout the talk, he emphasized the importance of communicating to children the message that “nobody has a right to make you feel uncomfortable — trust your instincts, go with your gut.”    
       Both the children’s and parent presentations were supported by a grant from the Garrison Children’s Education Fund.