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CURRENT ISSUE:  March 26, 2007 • VOL. 45 NO. 6 • Oakland, CA

Educating students before a predator does

A pre-teen girl logs on to her computer in an open area where her parents can monitor her use.

Officer Steve DeWarns is very convincing as a 13-year-old girl. In his Internet safety presentations, he logs onto his computer under an assumed screen name, like “Cindy13,” and chooses from a list of chat rooms. He quickly enters and exits, without typing a word. But DeWarns has not gone unnoticed. Online predators have captured his phony name and fabricated personal profile.

“They see it’s a kid,” DeWarns said. “Within minutes, I’m solicited by someone.” He said the messages have ranged from a seemingly benign, “Where are you from?” to a very forward, “Do you like older guys?” to a disturbing, “Do you want to see naked pictures?”

DeWarns, a Bay Area police officer with 16 years’ experience, teaches Internet safety courses to parents and children around California. He said the demonstration is designed to show just how quickly solicitation can happen – and it works. “They’re usually pretty speechless by the end,” he said.

Nancy Libby, Safe Environment Project coordinator for the Diocese of Oakland, hired DeWarns for five two-hour programs in response to persistent requests for Internet safety training from volunteers and employees. Libby said several hundred people — mainly parents — attended the October 2006 and November 2006 sessions, held at five schools. Libby said she learned of DeWarns through presentations he had given around the diocese.

DeWarns observed that predators have moved off the playground and into the chat room. Chat rooms are venues on the Internet where people talk about shared interests; the rooms are given titles that reflect the topics being discussed there. Because users do not have to identify themselves, an online predator — someone who uses the Internet to exploit or harm others — can assume any identity.

DeWarns noted that a child might think he is communicating with another teenager, although he is really chatting with a 40-year-old man. As DeWarns’ demonstration shows, these conversations can quickly turn inappropriate, even illegal.

Parents’ best defense is to take an active role in their children’s Internet experience, DeWarns said. This includes learning their children’s online interests and participating in the things they enjoy. It also includes monitoring, installing parental controls and placing computers in a well-traveled area.

Parental controls, also called filters, are software programs that block users from certain areas of the Internet. DeWarns said parents often complain that the controls are ineffective.

While he agrees that filters block some appropriate sites while missing some inappropriate ones, DeWarns said “it should not be an excuse.” He added that a parent can always override the control if, for example, a child needs to access a Web site for homework.

According to Libby, not all schools in the diocese utilize computer filters. Libby said some schools choose to forgo the filters in favor of teaching responsible use. Regardless, she said, all teachers do their best to monitor students using the Internet.

DeWarns said he urges families to create an “acceptable use policy,” which should address such items as prohibited Web sites and time limits for Internet use. He said the policy should include rules against divulging Internet passwords and other personal information to anyone except parents.

Kelly Stevens, chairperson of the diocesan School Departments’ technology committee, said the diocese requires students to sign this type of acceptable use policy to access school computers. The committee will review the current policy, as well as computer filtering, as it examines technology across the diocese and makes recommendations to the school board later this year.

DeWarns also takes his message to students, focusing on fifth and sixth graders. DeWarns said he stresses that the “Danger/Stranger rule” applies online. “You’re taught not to talk to strangers. Anyone you meet online is a stranger,” he said.

Children become vulnerable to these strangers when they divulge personal information on the Internet, DeWarns said, whether by communicating directly with someone or by posting pictures and other
personal identifiers online.

Some common sources of risk are social-networking Web sites like MySpace.com and Facebook.com, personal profiles associated with chat rooms and descriptive screen names.

DeWarns teaches children that putting such information on the Internet is no different than splashing it across a billboard. He said he describes a fictional road sign that he will place on a busy highway, and he tells one student that the sign will feature the student’s picture, name, school, telephone number, hobbies and interests.

DeWarns said when he asks for permission, the student’s answer is always: “No way!” DeWarns said he responds, “But you’re doing exactly that.”

Predators are looking for boys or girls aged 10 to 17, DeWarns said, so children and teens should be especially cautious about giving away their gender and age. He tells children to avoid using screen names that include their first name and their age, year of graduation or year of birth, such as “Timmy13.” DeWarns said children should not use their everyday screen name or e-mail address when chatting or playing games online.

DeWarns’ message applies equally to incoming information. He instructs children to end communication and tell a trusted adult if they receive a message that makes them uncomfortable or confused, and also warns children to never meet face to face with someone they met online.

In addition, DeWarns said, he tells children to never download or open any file or e-mail sent by an unknown person.

DeWarns said that his program is not about deterring people from using the Internet. Rather, DeWarns said, he wants to educate parents and children before a predator does. “These guys are more than happy to educate your kids.”

For more information, contact Officer Steve DeWarns at (707) 480-0327 or
sdewarns@internetchildsafety.net , or visit his Web site at www.InternetChildSafety.net. You may also contact Nancy Libby at nlibby@oakdiocese.org.


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