By BILL STANCZYKIEWICZ
— One online incident was relatively harmless. The other was not. Both stories teach important lessons for keeping kids safe in cyberspace.
College football star Manti Te’o likely will suffer no more than personal embarrassment after the girlfriend he supposedly met online did not really exist. The same cannot be said for the teenagers who went online and met Richard L. Finkbiner.
Finkbiner has agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of sexual exploitation of minors by inducing and coercing them into sexually explicit activity online. Federal authorities say Finkbiner would visit anonymous video chat websites where he deceived teenagers into conducting sexually inappropriate behaviors which he secretly recorded. Finkbiner then allegedly threatened to post those images digitally unless the teens allowed him to record behaviors even more explicit.
“As use of the Internet and cell phones has increased, the danger of coming in contact with online predators has increased as well,” said U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, Joe Hogsett, whose office prosecuted the Finkbiner case.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 42 percent of seventh through ninth graders reported communicating with at least one online stranger in the last year. In addition, one-third of children have experienced unwanted exposure to sexual material on the Internet, and 14 percent of youth between 10 to 17 years old have received unwanted sexual solicitations online.
According to Hogsett, predators are lurking on Facebook and other social networking sites, in online chat rooms, on video websites and in online gaming sites. “What we have observed in recent years is that online predators currently seek out minors who are already engaging in risky behavior using online social networking sites and 'anonymous' chat websites,” Hogsett said. “What ties them all together is that in almost every case, the predator used online attention, affection and gifts to victimize the minors.”
“The Internet contains many new and emerging threats,” Hogsett added. “The key to solving this problem is for parents to understand the scope of the challenge, and become involved in a minor's Internet social networking at an early age. Street-smart minors, with involved parents, stay safe.”
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller recommends the free information and resources available at www.netsmartz.org. And Walt Mueller, whose Center for Parent Youth Understanding hosts the Digital Kids Initiative (www.digitalkidsinitiative.com), recommends the web filter Covenant Eyes.
But Mueller quickly notes that filters alone do not guarantee online protection from any sexually explicit content or activity. “Parents, make the assumption that your kids are going to encounter this. Any kid who wants to find it is going to find it. In fact, it's going to find our kids before they find it.”
Handing technology to a child does not mean handing your parental duties to technology. “It's pretty simple,” Mueller said. “Set limits. Kids need limits.”
For example, parents can purchase technology with password protections, and computers should stay in open spaces so that screens can easily be viewed by adults at anytime. Set a daily time limit for online activity — for example, starting at one hour per day for children and increasing the time limit with age as parents see fit. In addition, set a technology curfew to conclude online activity each day or evening. Importantly: no talking to strangers.
Different limits apply to different kids based on different levels of maturity. Just as parents decide when a child is old enough to use a knife at the dinner table, parents need to determine the right technology limits at the right times for each individual child.
Mueller also encourages parents to join their kids online and stay ahead of the technology curve. “We're seeing more and more kids moving away from Facebook and moving toward Twitter because, by and large, parents are not there,” Mueller said. “Kids are always going to look for someplace to go where parents are not. We need to stay informed on what's happening in the youth culture and know where our kids are because that changes almost daily.”
Locking the doors of our homes is much easier than guarding the doorways to cyberspace. Staying involved with kids online offers the highest return on Internet safety.
— Bill Stanczykiewicz is President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org