Recently, Indianapolis Police Detective Darin Odier came to our school with a message for the students, and he delivered it in the most impactful way possible: He started with the seventh and eighth graders and immediately got their attention by projecting pictures of some of them on the big screen at the front of the gym. “I got these pictures,” he said, “from Facebook.”
He then showed them the profile of a young girl named Hannah. Hannah’s profile mentioned that she recently moved to town, was new at the school, and was reaching out to the students to make friends. She sent out a few friend requests and, eventually, some of them were answered. In the end, less than 10 people became friends with Hannah (who was actually Detective Odier), but he thinks it was only a matter of time before he had more. After all, he got this far in less than a week.
“I have more than 1,000 photos of the students here,” he continued, “because five of you became friends with a Facebook account I created. Once I had those five, the rest was easy.” The problem, really, wasn’t the pictures themselves. At least, not in this case. The problem was what the pictures represented: access and information.
It turns out, if your privacy settings aren’t carefully controlled, then you’re not only potentially exposing your own information, you could be exposing your friends’ as well. Detective Odier explained it like this: “By having the tags on the photos, I can put names with faces. I also know birthdays, hobbies, interests and — let’s not forget — where you go to school.”
While the risks to physical safety are apparent, Detective Odier spends his time tracking an equally insidious problem: child pornography. Once a perpetrator knows enough about you, they can begin to exert a great deal of pressure to get what they want. He went into considerable detail about some of the things he’s seen, and while it’s somewhat rare, the risk is real. It often begins with someone posing as someone or something they aren’t.
We teach our kids to be wary of strangers in the physical world, but we also need to teach them to be wary online. It turns out that kids may be too trusting, so we also need to teach them to be more discerning about who might actually *be* a stranger. Kids must be vigilant to only ‘friend’ people online who are actually friends. There are simply no good reasons for them to be conversing with people they don’t know.
You may be tempted to simply eliminate online access entirely. But turning off access really isn’t an option, says Odier. “Most of us parents are digital immigrants,” he explained. “We grew up without the Internet and are having to learn as we go. Our kids, however, are digital natives. They’ve never known anything else, and it will always be a part of their lives.” Our best hope is to better prepare them for what they’ll find out there.
One useful tool for this is NetSmartz Workshop, created by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. NetSmartz Workshop is an interactive, educational program designed for children ages 5-17 that provides age-appropriate resources to help teach children how to be safer on- and offline. There are also extensive resources for parents and guardians, educators, and law enforcement. With resources such as videos, games, activity cards, and presentations, NetSmartz aims to entertain while it educates.
NetSmartz covers a wide variety of timely topics, including cell phones, cyberbullying, social networks, chat rooms, email, gaming, identify theft, revealing too much personal information, general internet safety, and more. Each topic presents an overview of key things you need to know, tips, and discussion starters.
Some salient examples:
- Make sure all computers in your house are kept and used in a high-traffic area, and pay attention to what your kids are doing online.
- Remember that computers aren’t limited to desktops and laptops. Smartphones and devices like iPads, iPods, Kindles and game consoles often have direct access to the Internet.
- Consider installing some software that allows you to block various types of traffic.
- Greatly limit access to chat rooms and be sure to use screen names that don’t provide clues to identity, gender, or location.
- Review the privacy settings on social media sites to limit the information shared beyond their immediate circle of friends. Delete over-identifying to inappropriate information.
- Be aware that cyberbullying is on the rise, especially among girls. Help your kids understand what appropriate behavior looks like and dissuade them from responding to rude emails, comments, or messages.
- Remind them that anything they send from their phones can be easily copied and/or forwarded.
- They should NEVER meet face-to-face with anyone they first met online without your permission and/or attendance.
- Finally, talk with your kids. As a parent, it’s our job to do whatever we can to keep them safe. Sometimes, the most important thing is opening up a dialog so we’ll know what’s going on, even when they don’t want to tell us.
Detective Odier spoke with the kids from grades 5-8. That evening, he met with interested parents. Each presentation was modified to be age-appropriate. Before he finished the evening session he said, “I’ll be happy to talk with anyone who wants me to be there.” If you’d like to contact him about speaking at your school, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.
I’m convinced that he did his part to get the attention of the kids and get them thinking about this topic– maybe for the first time. Now it’s up to all of us to keep the conversation going.