Online dangers

Tips offered on protecting children online

The anonymity of Facebook and other social-networking sites makes those platforms ripe for child predators.

The anonymity of Facebook and other social-networking sites makes those platforms ripe for child predators.

It has become commonplace to observe that the Internet has changed the cultural landscape. Online communication has revolutionized the way people work, study, play and interact. New technologies, devices and apps are cropping up faster than their users can adjust to them, and each advance widens an ethical gap that can leave young people very vulnerable.

Pew Research Center statistics hold that 38 percent of Facebook users are under the age of 13, and that one in 25 youths has been approached by online sexual predators attempting to arrange real-world meetings.

To shed light on these issues, on Tuesday (May 7) the Butte County Office of Education invited two speakers to present talks on the theme “Keeping Safe in Cyberspace.” Sacramento-based FBI Special Agent Scott Schofield, with the Violent Crimes Against Children Squad, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Reardon, coordinator of Project Safe Childhood, gave two afternoon presentations to freshmen at Pleasant Valley High School and one community talk in Chico Junior High School’s Durst Theater.

Between these engagements they gave an informal talk, intended for educators and school staff, on the dangers of cyberspace. It was held in the meeting room at Johnnie’s Restaurant in downtown Chico. Two dozen teachers, administrators and school psychologists attended.

They started off with what Reardon called “the 800-pound gorilla”: Facebook.

“Once your information has been posted online,” he said, “you’re not getting it back.” College admissions offices and prospective employers routinely run kids’ names through Facebook as part of a standard vetting process. “You may walk into an interview wearing a suit and tie, and have your hair done nicely, but those pictures of you last weekend at the bar… that’s who [they’re] thinking about hiring. So this stuff follows you.”

An estimated 87,000,000 Facebook accounts are fake, he said. The anonymity of Facebook and other social networking tools provides sexual predators with ample cover to gain the trust of potential young victims. Pulling from years of experience investigating and prosecuting this sort of crime, Reardon said a typical predator “spends all day, every day on the computer. So it’s no big deal for him to send out a thousand emails to everyone he comes across online. All he needs is one kid to respond.”

He likened predatory tactics to the sort of social engineering associated with classic identity theft.

“We hear about it in terms of online scams for adults. They talk you out of your Social Security number, your phone number… It’s no different. The people we’re dealing with are very good at this. They’re very good at finding weaknesses, and they’ve got nothing but time on their hands to exploit whatever weakness they can find.”

With new tools, sites and apps like Kick and Snapchat constantly surfacing, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially for parents, said Schofield.

“Something new has probably come along since we started talking to you guys,” he said. “When I do a parent presentation, nobody’s heard of this stuff.”

It’s best to paint in broad strokes when talking about Internet safety with kids, Reardon said. “The point is really to teach them the main issues, [such as] ‘Don’t be chatting with people you don’t know online.’”

Reardon said it was important to use restraint when online.

“Think before you post, control your online identity,” he said. “And never meet up with someone online that you don’t know in real life. If the kids can take away those concepts, they are applicable to what’s out there today as well as what will be out there tomorrow, at least in the medium term.”

Asked about recommended policy language for elementary-, middle- and high-school student handbooks and materials, Reardon responded, “I’d be willing to work with you all, or at least to take it back to my office. But the appropriate person, because your districts are local and your boards are local, would be your DA’s office.”

Child pornography, cyber-bullying, and sex trafficking all find convenient points of entry in social-networking tools.

“We all like to think that these things aren’t happening in our community, but they are,” Reardon said, citing recent cases in Red Bluff and Paradise.

“I would love to come into work someday and be told that I was out of a job because there’s no more work left to do,” he said. “But hopefully we reach one or two, or a half-dozen or a dozen, and we at least get this conversation started.”