Every year, more children of all ages go online to study, have fun and communicate with the world at large. The Internet is becoming an even more integral part of our children's lives, and most are ill equipped to protect themselves online.

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's (NCMEC) June 2000 report, Online Victimization: A Report on the Nation's Youth, in one year approximately one in five young people who use the Internet regularly received an unwanted sexual solicitation or approach, and one in four encountered unwanted pornography.

The risks of the Internet pose a clear and immediate danger to families and children. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has taken an active position on educating Utah's children.

"Prosecuting online predators is only half the battle," said Shurtleff, who also supervises Utah's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. "Our best chance of protecting Utah's children is to teach them how to avoid being a victim in the first place." Shurtleff's idea was to incorporate Internet education into the Utah school system. His solution was to come to NetSmartz for help.

Made possible by a public-private partnership with Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the NCMEC, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the NetSmartz Workshop provides original, animated characters and age-appropriate, interactive activities using the latest 3-D and Web technologies to entertain while educating.

Through partnerships with Computer Associates, HP and Cox Communications, NetSmartz stays current with the latest business and Web trends.

What is NetSmartz?

In the late 1990s, Boys & Girls Clubs of America launched Operation Connect, a multifaceted and comprehensive effort to bridge the digital divide between children who have access to the Internet and those who do not, and bring the latest technologies to Boys & Girls Clubs nationwide.

Thus, a major concern for Boys & Girls Clubs of America was Internet safety. With the rollout of new computers and computer labs in Boys & Girls Clubs all over the country, a large percentage of Club members were being exposed to the Internet for the first time. Boys & Girls Club directors felt it was imperative that their kids were empowered to protect themselves online.

It was natural then, in 1999, when Boys & Girls Clubs of America sought to develop state-of-the-art educational content about online safety that they should turn to the NCMEC.

Since the NCMEC was established in 1984, it has worked to make children safer. The NetSmartz Workshop was created specifically to extend children's safety awareness to prevent victimization and increase self-confidence whenever they go online. NetSmartz goals include:

  • enhancing children's abilities to recognize dangers on the Internet;

  • enhancing children's abilities to understand that people they first meet on the Internet should never be considered their friends;

  • encouraging children to report victimization to a trusted adult;

  • supporting and enhancing community education efforts; and

  • increasing communication between adults and children about online safety.

    Boys & Girls Clubs leaders and children played vital roles in the appearance of program content and characters, ensuring that NetSmartz messages were on target and characters appealed to the respective age groups. The NetSmartz activities, designed for ages 5 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 and older, combine the newest technologies and most current information to create high-impact educational activities that are well received by even the most tech-savvy kids of any age group.

    The NetSmartz Web site is a great resource for kids, teens, parents and educators. Kids can play games and activities while learning Internet safety from NetSmartz characters. Teens can view "real-life" stories to learn from other teens' experiences with online dangers.

    "Who's Your Friend on the Internet?" is one activity designed to show children that you don't always know who

  • Mark Minicucci  |  Contributing Writer