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Protecting Your Children From Cyberbullying and Other Digital Threats

Detective Alan Krok of the Chicago Police Department spoke at my local public library today about cyberbullying and more broadly about how to protect children in today’s digital environment.  He spoke about how he works in a Special Investigation Unit that deals specifically with internet crimes involving children.  His earlier years on the task force were dedicated to finding and arresting sexual predators, mainly by impersonating a child online and luring the sexual predator to be arrested.  Over time, Det. Krok’s area of expertise and investigation has expanded to also include cyberbullying and harassment, sexting and investigating online fight videos.

He gave so much information on a wide array of subjects, categories are necessary.  Det. Krok was a lively speaker with a mission to educate people as much as he could in the time that was available.  One point that was repeated was that parents need to be aware of what their children are doing and be pro-active in defending their children.  “You’re the first line of defense for your kids,” he said.

Some of the cases he described having investigated or solved will increase anyone’s anxiety about the pervasive access to the internet and digital media children have today.  If I had a child, I think I might be overprotective to the point that my child’s peers at college would wonder if he or she had been raised Amish.  It is too easy to see cellular phones and laptops as benign appliances.  Det. Krok put the fear of danger into the lot of us -arming us with detailed information to be more vigilant protectors.

Here’s what I took away from the lecture:

CYBERBULLYING BASIC INFORMATION

  • Kids today live in an “information acceleration” culture.  Bullying has always been around, but now incidents of taunting and insults move at a high rate of speed and involve many people rather than being an incident between two people.
  • There is no “cooling off period” with conflicts.  The around-the-clock access to communications through texting, cellular calls, email, social networking, etc. gives bullies instant gratification and sustained outlets for harassment.
  • Bullying is more brutal now because the attackers can hide behind computers.  It has been Det. Krok’s experience that the most aggressive cyberbully is female.  “Girls are the worst bullies of all the cases I’ve handled,” said Det. Krok.  “The twelve year-old girl is the new demon of Chicago.”
  • Bullies escalate aggression when there are other participants or a wide audience.  “Participants fuel bullying by giving attention to the bully,” said Det. Krok.

Cyberbullying is the use of Internet technologies to tease, humiliate, and harass someone. It might mean text messages sent at all hours of the day, or degrading comments about someone posted to a website.

NetSmartz.org

IS YOUR CHILD BEING CYBERBULLIED?

  • Look for signs of anxiety when they receive a text message or email.  Notice if they are avoiding the computer and even avoid discussing the computer.
  • Be aware of disruptions in eating or sleeping habits, such as stopping eating or missing sleep.
  • Look out for withdrawal from family or social activities.
  • Missing school and playing sick to avoid school is a danger sign.
  • Be alert to signs of fear, depression or low self-esteem.  Worst case scenarios have led bullied kids to commit suicide.

IS YOUR CHILD A CYBERBULLY?

  • Overcome the “NMK Syndrome” in believing “not my kid” because kids are kids, and any kid is capable of mistakes and foolishness.  Cyberbullying cuts across all economic, social and ethnic demographics.  Det. Krok did state that single parent homes have a higher risk of a child being a bully or being bullied because one parent has less time to monitor the child’s activities than two.
  • Does your child switch or close programs when you walk by or suddenly turn off the monitor?
  • Is your child sneaking online or trying to use the computer at all hours of the day and night?
  • Be alert if your child is laughing excessively when online.  Ask them what is so funny.
  • Children that are bullying avoid discussions about their computer use or what they are doing online.
  • Children that are bullying use multiple email and social networking accounts or use accounts that are not their own.

STEPS TO PROTECT YOUR CHILD

  • Educate your child to not respond to bullying.  Teach your child to save the evidence and alert you to any bullying right away.
  • Know your child’s email account, password and any online nicknames or monikers they use.
  • Children do not have an expectation of privacy; go stick your nose in their online use and text messages to keep them honest.  Look into various products that are “a great insurance policy” for safety.  Parents need to protect their children, not be their buddy.  Consider using sites like SafetyWeb.com to monitor computer use and apps like PageChecker.com to monitor cellular text use.  There are many monitoring products available and are affordable.
  • Go through your child’s Facebook page and ask who everyone is.  Delete anyone that your child does not know personally.  Celebrity, music groups or fan groups excluded, Facebook is safest when the sources communicating with your child are known.
  • Keep all Facebook settings to “private” and do not allow any “friends of friends” options for posting or viewing photographs.  Educate your child that Facebook is public and there are no expectations of actual privacy in social networking forums.
  • Keep access to the computer in a shared part of the home.  Know when and how your child is using the computer.
  • Know your child’s school’s policy about cyberbullying.  Some schools have a “zero tolerance” policy to protect students and will take action to protect students and punish perpetrators.

HOW TO DEAL WITH CYBERBULLYING INCIDENTS

  • Investigate the source of the trouble.  Save any bullying or harassing messages as evidence for police and the school to investigate.  Print out anything online so it cannot be deleted or erased and save the printed evidence.
  • Block or ban the bully from contacting your child.
  • Set up new email and social networking accounts and discontinue using the old ones.
  • Try to deal with police that specialize in internet issues; they will be best equipped to address your concerns or problems.

SEXTING

  • Det. Krok grouped all cellular phone and internet photographs of nudity together all as “sexting” and stated that girls as young as age 11 are prone to try this.
  • Hormones and sexual curiosity play a role with boys and girls sexting, the increase of continual access to technology has multiplied this problem.  The damage done is irreparable.  The minute the photograph is sent it “goes viral pretty much instantly,” he said.  “If you send a picture, you lose total control of it.”  The picture can be sent through countless cell phones and often will be duplicated in “pornography funnels” and will basically be impossible to remove or eradicate from the internet.
  • Girls are particularly pressured to send nude photographs and may do this to show for affection for a boy she has romantic feelings for, or in response to peer pressure and dares from other girls.  Girls may sext to appease boys demanding physical sex from them, a sort of attempt to keep the physical demands and harassment for sex at bay.
  • Keep access to the computer in a shared part of the home.  Computers and laptops in the bedroom have exponentially greater temptation for children to experiment with using their own nudity online.

INFORMATION ON SEXUAL PREDATORS / PEDOPHILES

Sexual Predators / pedophiles “groom” kids to trust them.  Be aware of the following danger signs:

  • Your child is receiving gifts by mail.
  • You notice calls or texts to unknown numbers.
  • Your child is withdrawn or turning away from friends and family.
  • Your child becomes very upset if they are not allowed to go online.
  • Your child is using a program in a minimized screen, switches programs or turns the monitor off when you walk by.

Det. Krok advised us that predators seeking girls are prone to use Facebook and false identities to woo girls romantically.  A particular danger on the rise: online gaming networks, especially for PlayStation and XBox, are now the primary hunting grounds for predators seeking boys.  The predators play the games for months on end, pretending to be a peer then invite the boy over to play at their home or meet with them in person, leading to kidnapping and sexual assault.  Gay-curious or bi-curious boys searching for information about human sexuality online are at extreme risk for being found by and meeting with sexual predators.  The gay-curious or bi-curious boys rarely report the sexual contact, regardless of how they feel about the outcome, and keep sexual contact secret not recognizing it as statutory rape / sexual predation by an adult.

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