WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) —Westfield parents were provided with a glimpse into the online worlds their children may experience and the potential dangers they face in a presentation from the Westfield Police Department, Westfield Schools and the US Department of Justice (DOJ).
The program, called “Keeping Kids Safe Online,” is part of a nationwide initiative by Project Safe Childhood, to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse, launched in May 2006 by the DOJ. Focuses in the presentation, which occurred at Tekoa Country Club in Westfield, included social media and gaming, digital footprints, sexting, cyberbullying, sextortion, online predators and keeping children safe online. Information for the presentation was also bolstered with selected information from surveys given to North, South and St. Mary’s schoolchildren in Westfield.
Throughout most of the evening, the presentation focused on effective communication with children to help protect them from the many risks online. According to the survey, 70 percent of the students polled are online 2 hours or more a day.
“Communication is key,” Neil Desroches, assistant US Attorney, said. “Don’t forget that first you need to understand what they’re using and create an atmosphere so they can talk to you about it.”
The group outlined the many different smartphone and online applications children use, many of which can enable people to present a different identity and hide their activity from law enforcement and parents alike.
Some of the applications, such as messaging ones, allow the users to have their messages encrypted, making it very difficult for law enforcement to retrieve them.
“Some apps, like Kik, WhatsApp and Voxer, the texts are encrypted and once they’re deleted they’re deleted,” Desroches said.
Others, like Facebook, SnapChat, YouTube or Instagram, allow for the sharing of personal information, including photos and videos, which could be embarrassing as children get older, or worse.
“Do know the culture, the apps they use,” Todd Edwards, detective for Westfield Police Department, said. “Do know their user or screen names. They will stick to a similar style. As a parent you want to have their passwords, what profile they maintain.”
They also stressed supervision, which Desroches said helps to reduce the chances children take online.
“Those who felt they were not supervised tended to engage in riskier behavior,” he said. “Supervision really does work. Thing is, it is not the end of it.”
He added that parents can takes steps like checking browser history, turning off wifi in the home at night and checking the applications and online activity of their children. Also, learn about the apps that are being used, including their security and privacy options and discuss with your children.
In addition to the apps and their abilities, the presenters also outlined how these can be used by online predators to take advantage of children. This can be done through online predators presenting themselves as someone other than they are, then building trust with a child and eventually exploiting them.
“My online persona is like a suit, I can put it on and take it off,” Edwards said. “There’s little to no verification of who these people are—it’s anybody they want to be.”
Desroches presented one such incident that occurred when a man started talking to a 9-year-old boy after first “meeting” him over the chat capabilities of the video game Minecraft. He said that the man built trust and an online relationship with the boy. After some time, he started to give compliments to the child, as well as the gift of a game.
“The man on the other end of the computer connection started to groom him,” he said.
He said that the offender, who was found to be in his mid-30s, had also purchased the child an application for his iPod that would allow him to message back and forth with him. His grandmother saw the iPod buzzing one night and read a message, thus alerting her and the authorities.
In addition to this, it was also warned that parents must be aware of their children’s actions when it comes to the act of sending images and videos to those who request them. Those who request them could be predators, or they could be their peers.
According to Roxann Bradley, Westfield Police detective, children may send sexually suggestive images because they may feel they may not have to go further physically by doing so. However, this is still a crime, she said.
“Is sexting a crime? Yes,” she said. “If the image shows a minor under the age of 18, it is child pornography.”
She said that they are trying to teach children that they do not want to be labeled as a sex offender for the rest of their lives with this.
“If you take it, it’s a felony, if you send it, it’s a felony,” she said.
And the presenters said that this was happening in Westfield. According to the survey, children answered that they have been asked to send nude images before.
In addition to protection from these threats, the presenters also cautioned parents to work with their children on what is being put online and being left as a digital footprint.
“Talk about repercussions of their actions,” Karen Legace, Project Safe Childhood specialist, said. “Even privately, that text and that photo, how will it impact my future?”
These decisions, Legace said, could impact children through incidents like cyberbullying, or could have detrimental effects on future decisions like college, if the digital footprint does not appear to be a good one.
“The children are the most vulnerable in our community,” Desroches said. “The internet poses some great dangers, also is a great tool for our children.”
Visit the Project Safe Childhood website for more information.
Copyright 2017 The Westfield News