Indianapolis Police Detective Darin Odier immediately got the attention of the seventh and eighth graders: “I got these from Facebook,” he said, projecting pictures on the big screen of some of the kids seated right in front of him.
Next in this revealing show-and-tell in my local school gym, he showed the profile of a young girl named Hannah. In it, she mentioned that she recently moved to town, was new at the school and was reaching out to students to make friends. Very sweet. She sent out a few friend requests and, within a week, some of them were answered. Hannah had made some new friends—which would be a nice story if Hannah weren’t actually Detective Odier using a fake identity.
“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 wasn’t the pictures themselves. At least, not in this case. The problem was what the pictures represented: access and information.
Young or old, if your privacy settings aren’t carefully controlled, 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.”
We teach our kids to be wary of strangers in the physical world, but we also need to teach them to be wary online. Kids need to be taught to be more discerning about who might actually be a stranger, only friending people online who are actually flesh-and-blood friends.
Tempted to eliminate online access entirely? That’s not really an option, Odier said.
“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 I’d recommend is NetSmartz Workshop (www.netsmartz.org), created by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. An interactive, educational program designed for children ages 5-17, NetSmartz Workshop 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. And to make it more likely to be used, NetSmartz aims to entertain while it educates.
Some NetSmartz advice:
• Make sure all home computers are kept and used in a high-traffic area so you can pay better attention to what your kids are doing online.
• Remember that computers aren’t limited to desktops and laptops. Smartphones and devices such as iPads, iPods, Kindles and game consoles often have direct access to the Internet.
• Consider installing software that allows you to block various types of traffic.
• Greatly limit access to chat rooms and be sure screen names that are used don’t provide clues to identity, gender or location.
• Review the privacy settings on social media sites to limit the information shared beyond the immediate circle of friends. Delete over-identifying and inappropriate information.
• Be aware that cyber-bullying is on the rise, especially among girls. Help your kids understand what appropriate behavior looks like and dissuade them from responding to rude e-mails, comments or messages.
• Remind kids 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 dialogue so we’ll know what’s going on, even when they don’t want to tell us.
If you want them to hear it from someone besides you, Detective Odier said he’d be happy to talk with anyone who wants him to. If you’d like to contact him about speaking at your school, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.•
Cota is president and co-founder of Rare Bird Inc., a marketing communications firm specializing in Internet application development. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.