Expert preps parents on Internet safety for kids

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At the beginning of his crash course in online safety, Helena Police Det. Bryan Fischer had parents ready to run home and pull the plugs on their computers.

 By the end of the presentation, parents were given advice and tips to monitor their children’s online activity and begin the conversation with their children about the dangers of sexual predators.

Fischer is with the Montana Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

In his talk Thursday at Kila School, he told about ways sex offenders use Internet sites that are popular with children to exploit or prey upon them.

What he told them was not meant to scare, but educate and prevent dangerous interactions Fischer said.

“Technology is here to stay,” Fischer said.

Kila Elementary principal Renee Boisseau arranged in November for him to speak after hearing him at a conference.

At a time when nearly every electronic device can connect wirelessly to the Internet, keeping up with technology and with online sites children visit is a task not to be ignored, Boisseau said.

The Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force is a nationwide program that connects local, state and federal law enforcement officials to investigate crimes against children through the use of technology.

Fischer’s job is to catch these criminals, often using online personas predators solicit.

“I portray an 11-, 12-, 13- or 14-year-old child [online], I portray a sex offender talking to other sex offenders looking for child pornography,” Fischer said. “I can be a mother trying to prostitute her children on Craigslist.”

He asked the group how many had Facebook accounts and several hands went up. He asked how many had computers and there were more hands and when he asked how many have cellphones, almost every hand went up.

“How many have asked their children how to use those devices? Kids as young as fourth grade are having to teach their parents about technology and as parents we’re afraid to say we don’t know about something. As parents, when it comes to this, we have to know,” Fischer said.

Teaching children how to use the Internet is something parents should do rather than vice versa. He compared technology to learning to drive a car.

“What do we do to get them ready to drive a car? Driver’s Education — learn the rules of the road, pass a test, then parents have to spend 50 hours driving with them and usually an accident will happen in the first six months,” he said. “Give a child a piece of technology or Internet and we haven’t told them what they could do, or how they could get in trouble, more accidents will happen.”

He showed logos of popular websites children may use such as the video sharing site YouTube; interactive game World of Warcraft; message board 4Chan; live video chat sites such as Stickam and Chatroulette; and social networking sites such as Hi5, My Yearbook and Facebook.

“As parents if you’ve got children, do you know what these icons suggest — because sex offenders do,” Fischer said.

Gaming consoles such as XBox and PlayStation also have wireless capabilities where children may chat and play interactive games with people from around the world.

“One sex offender convinced an 11-year-old child to leave school one particular day, probably said, ‘I’ll give you a video game. Come meet me.’ This individual ended up sexually assaulting the individual on two occasions,” he said.

He said children may be coerced into inappropriate situations that quickly turn into exploitation.

“An offender could say, ‘You’d be a great teen model. Send a picture of yourself,’ to ‘send me a picture in a bikini’ to ‘If you really want to make something of yourself, then you send me a naked photograph of yourself.’”

Then the offender says: “If you don’t do what I want to do, I’m going to post to your Facebook account, post to my Facebook account, your friends’ Facebook account.”

There are two rules he tells children when they interact online:

“The first rule is if they know who they’ve talked to on the Internet, they’ve physically met them before, parents approve of them and it’s not a fictitious person — they won’t get in trouble.

“The second thing is, if a child is ever made to feel uncomfortable, asked to do something inappropriate or talk about inappropriate things, to talk to a trusted adult.” 

He said parents need to make sure children learn about privacy settings and use them when creating online profiles. Profiles provide opportunities for people to “follow” or “subscribe” to a user’s profile where they are alerted to any updates made and these updates may be going right to the cellphone of a sexual predator.

“Over 400 million users at any time are accessing Facebook,” Fischer said.

Fischer recommended limiting the time children spend on the computer and supervising them.

He advised parents to keep a list of their children’s email addresses and passwords to all online accounts. Parents can visit sites such as www.pipl.com or www.spokeo.com to search for accounts their child may have.

There also is software that can help parents track online activity and many cellphone carriers provide services to track text messages. Fischer himself is a father of two sons, 11 and 17, and a 14-year-old daughter.

He uses a service through his cellphone carrier to have his daughter’s cellphone shut off during certain hours of the school day and only accept calls from authorized phone numbers.

To learn more about online safety or to report suspicious activity, visit www.mticac.org.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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