BALLSTON SPA – The Internet revolution has changed childhood as we know it. Children tag each other on Facebook photos rather than in the neighborhood parks. They play charades on Instagram, cops and robbers on Xbox 360, and swing a bat on the Wii. Their pen-pal letters travel instantly to every corner of the world, which now include photos and videos of the far-away homes of these online friends.
Like any technological evolution, there are equally great opportunities and challenges for parents raising children in this high-speed, global-access era, but the most disquieting challenge is online safety. Children are meeting strangers online nearly as frequently as they meet them in a shopping mall, but without a parent’s hand to hold onto.
“Years ago, predators would go to the playground or food court at a mall looking for kids,” said John Kelly, Community Educator for the Capital Region office of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). “Now they’ve adapted to today's technology. They don’t have to kidnap them. They just arrange to meet them.”
Kelly, a retired Saratoga Springs police officer and former DARE officer for the Saratoga Springs school district, leads the educational programming for NCMEC locally, teaching parents, children, and law enforcement about child abduction prevention, Internet safety, cyberbullying, and more.
“We have to embrace the technology because it’s not going away,” said Kelly. “It’s getting bigger and better, so we have parents learn about it, Google it, find out what SnapChat is, play one of their kids' games for a bit, know who’s in the game playing it with your kids. Parents ask me a lot, ‘Am I the only one that knows my kid’s password?’ Well, no, you’re not. Parents should know their kids’ passwords. Remember, you paid for that phone or gaming device. You should have complete access.”
According to John Shehan, Vice President of the Exploited Children Division for NCMEC, an exploitation technique known as “sextortion” is on the rise. “We found a pattern where children were being coached into taking photos of themselves,” he said, “and those photos are being used to blackmail them into taking more graphic ones. What we gleaned out of this is that children are not telling anyone. They continue to take the photos in order to make the situation go away.”
Online predators make contact with children through online gaming, Facebook or other innocent social networking sites. After the individuals make contact, they try to move communication into a private chat, then video chat, and then to graphic content and finally to meeting the child.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent David Fallon, who works closely with Kelly and the Capital Region office of NCMEC, investigates crimes against children in all of upstate New York. He was the team leader investigating the abduction and successful recovery of two Amish girls in the North Country last year, and performs undercover operations online to find child predators.
“The target audience for guys doing this type of crime are middle school and younger,” said Fallon. “It’s critical to pay attention to what they are doing online. These guys find them through cell phones and tablets, so be really careful what apps they download. We get a lot of complaints of kids being contacted through Kik Messenger for photos.”
Fallon also warned that parents should make sure the geolocating feature on devices are turned off for photos. If a child sends a selfie, anyone with the knowledge can get the geolocation data off the image. Facebook automatically strips all that data off, but Kik and other sites do not. Facebook is making every effort to be safer, but Fallon said to keep in mind that unsupervised access is never good.
That is why the Capital Region office of NCMEC offers free age-appropriate programming for parents and children with law-enforcement-endorsed tips for keeping children safe while they explore the World Wide Web.
The Ballston Spa Central School District is one of the many districts that have partnered with NCMEC to implement child abduction prevention education in the schools. NCMEC has provided training to Ballston Spa teachers to implement their curriculum in the district’s K-8 schools. The nonprofit has also worked with the district’s Middle School Peer Leader Program, directly training a group of peer leaders who will in turn share the information with their peers.
“Internet safety is part of living in the 21st century,” said Joseph P. Dragone, Ph.D., Superintendent of Schools, Ballston Spa Central School District. “Like it or not, much social interaction occurs in a virtual space, which by its nature promotes a high degree of anonymity that allows access to children. Regardless of how proactive we are protecting students in this environment, the first line of defense will always be parents. It is critical that they know and understand their child’s Internet presence, social activity and who he/she is communicating with.”
"The Internet is a fantastic tool and parents, by and large, should not fear their children using the Internet,” said Shehan. “It goes back to communication between parent and child – if something goes wrong, let's discuss it. Parents should also know the free resource to help parents – Netsmartz411.org, dedicated to parents and guardians to learn about Internet safety and usage. It’s staffed by highly trained individuals who understand technology as well as the dark side of the web.”
NCMEC resources are online and free to teachers, parents, and community members. The Capital Region office of The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children serves the children, families and professionals of the 11 counties of the Capital Region: Albany, Columbia, Fulton, Greene, Montgomery, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady, Schoharie, Warren and Washington counties.
The office provides abduction and sexual exploitation prevention education programs for parents, children, law enforcement, and other professionals; Netsmartz Internet and Real World safety education programs for children (grades K - 12) and parents, (including state-of-the-art “train the trainer” program for educators); and expert training for law enforcement and professionals serving missing and sexually exploited children and their families.