My county's Deputy District Attorney led cyber-safety presentations for the students at our neighborhood public middle school last week, educating them in the online pitfalls kids their age are most likely to encounter. She opened by talking about "stranger danger" as they've always known it, and that the boogeyman isn't just the obvious man in sunglasses asking children if they'd like a piece of candy anymore. There are, in fact, scores of unknown people hiding on the web, trolling to find their next victims. Deputy DA Lisette Suder gave a parallel presentation to 75 parents that same night, where she stressed that parent education coupled with parent-child communication is the best way to keep kids safe.
Suder has seen an explosion of cyber crimes related to the sexual assault and child endangerment cases she prosecutes in El Dorado County. "The Internet isn't just TV or reading a book; it's interactive, alive and real," she said. More than half of the kids in the audience raised their hands when she asked if a stranger had ever texted them or approached them online, which wasn't surprising to Suder, though it was to the parents. She said it is a common practice for predators to call random numbers until they reach a child. Further, "A predator's number one goal is to get kids offline to try and meet them," she said. Throughout the evening, she stressed how cyber danger is a real thing and that people are victimized right here in our seemingly safe suburban communities.
However, completely shielding kids from technology isn't realistic, nor is trying to stay ahead of the criminals. "The sophistication of the criminal mind is advancing," warned Suder. "We could never have the time or resources to figure out all the modern ways kids can get caught up."
Instead, we need to monitor what children are up to. Specifically, if parents don't recognize an app on their child's phone, find out what it is. And, Suder said, arm children with these specific online safety tips.
Never, never, never:
- Reply to someone you don't know
- Give your name
- Give your address or where you go to school
- Send pictures to someone you don't know
Many kids these days think they're too smart to fall for a predator's lines, so warn them that by talking to strangers online, they could also be putting their family or friends at risk. By giving out personal information or even sending out a photo, (which can give a GPS location - called Geotagging), a home can be robbed. Giving out personal information can also lead to someone hacking into parents' bank accounts, etc. In addition, a whopping 600,000 hijacked log-in attempts are reported on Facebook each day alone.
"Middle school aged kids are the perfect victims," said Suder. "Their bodies are changing and they often feel like no one understands them. Kids who feel lonely will tell an adult anything if they spend enough time talking." She also wanted parents to know that boys are just as likely to be victimized as girls.
Beyond unknown predators, kids can get themselves into trouble all on their own. Sexting and cyberbullying (also known as "flaming") were discussed. Parents were given an eight-page pamphlet of sexting codes kids use today. Suder offered this tip to kids: "If it's something you wouldn't show or say to your mom, dad or teacher, then you know it's inappropriate and DON'T push send." And later to the parents, she said, "Don't assume your kid wouldn't do this."
The school principal closed with this: "Kids are living in a world that has a whole different realm of communication than we had as kids. And because of that, we want them to be safe in cyber space, just as we expect them to make good choices in other parts of their lives."
Julie Samrick is a stay-at-home mom of four young kids and the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to children and family issues. Subscribe to the free Kid Focused newsletter delivered weekly to your inbox and connect with us on Facebook too. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com.