Smart Kids

Sexual predators on the Internet create a problem for state and local law enforcement, but new technologies are helping.

by / January 4, 2005
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
  • you are talking to online. In this game show, there are three curtains with a contestant behind each one. Each contestant is asked to describe himself or herself.

    Once the children hear all three voices, they must decide who sounds the most trustworthy. At the end, the children find out that all three contestants, even the ones that sounded like children, turned out to be "WizzyWigs." This stands for, "What you see isn't always what you get," because on the Web, you never really know who you are talking to.

    "Julie's Journey" is the story of a 13-year-old girl who left home for three weeks with a convicted murderer she developed a relationship with online.

    Adults can access materials to help them teach their children or students online safety skills.

    NetSmartz uses the Web and its streaming technologies to deliver content more efficiently and effectively. The Web has more potential than television for reaching children on a number of levels. Viewers will tune in like a television show, but the show will include the interactivity the Web provides.

    Importance of Private Partnerships
    What makes the NetSmartz Workshop unique is its use of the latest 3-D software and hardware, content management software, and Web-based solutions. It is also available to the public at no cost. But with a small staff and a budget based on federal appropriations and charity, private partnerships are a must to achieve organizational goals.

    The strategy at NetSmartz is to present itself not only as a charity, but also as a partner with incentives. Since NetSmartz is a nonprofit organization, it can't produce revenue for its partners, but it does provide good PR.

    HP donated $1.5 million in computer equipment, including 3-D workstations and media servers for NetSmartz's artists and Web technicians. Compaq Presario model computers include a desktop icon that takes parents and children directly to the NetSmartz Web site.

    Cox Communications recently partnered with the NetSmartz Workshop by providing $1 million in airtime to run NetSmartz public-service announcements (PSA) on Cox cable networks. The NetSmartz PSAs will run on networks such as Disney and the Cartoon Network. The parent PSA, which is aimed at getting parents to take a more active role in their child's online activities, will run on networks viewed primarily by adults, such as ESPN, CNN and CNBC.

    Computer Associates, which had already been providing the NCMEC with solutions for their mission of finding missing children and preventing child sexual exploitation, donated eTrust Security Suite, CleverPath business portal and Unicenter Web traffic analyzer software to NetSmartz.

    NetSmartz uses the CleverPath Portal with the iMarkup Solutions iMarkup Server v5 for an end-to-end document and content management solution. Web traffic on the NetSmartz site is monitored using Unicenter Management for Web Servers integrated into the CleverPath Portal. More importantly, Computer Associates donates hundreds of free engineering and support hours for all of its products.

    Both the private and public organizations benefit from the partnerships. The private corporations gain great PR and customer referrals, and NetSmartz can more efficiently reach its goals with important business software and Web technology. The most important benefit these private corporations receive may be seeing their products help an important cause.

    The Importance of State Partnerships
    To successfully reach its mission, NetSmartz strives to reach as many kids, parents and teachers as possible. It was important for Utah to find a program that was both fun and educational, but also cost-effective and proven. Because the NetSmartz Workshop is free and was tested nationwide in Boys & Girls Clubs across the country, it was a perfect fit.

    The partnership between Utah and NetSmartz made both of those goals a reality.

    After the partnership with Utah, elected officials across
  • the nation began to express interest in NetSmartz. The National Association of Attorneys General requested a presentation at their annual conference in February 2003. Shurtleff challenged other attorneys general to adopt NetSmartz in their states as well.

    On Feb. 18, 2004, New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte and New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson announced plans to implement NetSmartz in their state. Students will complete NetSmartz activities and receive a computer-generated certificate. Other states continue to follow the example of Utah and New Hampshire. As of January 2004, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, New York, Texas and Wyoming have initiated partnerships with NetSmartz.

    The Perfect E-Government Model
    The NetSmartz Workshop is a unique addition to the world of e-government. The fact that a 3-D animation studio could be such a useful tool in aiding states and law enforcement in the war against online sexual predators is a great indication that current Web and business technologies are dramatically changing the way government and nonprofit organizations manage operations.

    Using the latest business software technologies, NetSmartz can more efficiently manage and develop its content under strict deadlines and tight budgets. Using the latest Web technologies, NetSmartz can stream content to families and schools across the country from an office in Alexandria, Va. Most importantly, none of this could be achieved without the help of private partnerships.

    The technology and exposure provided to NetSmartz from these corporations allow NetSmartz to achieve its goals. In return, private corporations see their products, designed specifically for e-business being used to aid state, local and federal governments help combat the problem of Internet dangers and keep kids safer online. It is truly a win-win relationship for everyone involved.
    Mark Minicucci Contributing Writer