For years, parents have sent their kids to neighborhood parks and school playgrounds with a timeless admonition: Don't talk to strangers. Today, that phrase has taken on new meaning as more children spend their leisure time surfing the Internet, where they can easily fall prey to a growing breed of unseen criminals who have forsaken local playgrounds for virtual ones.
To address the problem, the Internet Crimes Unit of the Naperville, Ill., Police Department created the Safekids Web site www.microsoft.com/safekids to help teachers and parents educate kids about the hidden dangers of the online world. Microsoft donated its Web-integration expertise to help make the program available online.
The site includes an audio/visual presentation and accompanying teacher's guide touting the "do's" and "don'ts" of Internet safety. Designed for parents and teachers with varying levels of computer experience, the materials can be downloaded with information on Internet crime prepared by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The recent high-school tragedy in Littleton, Colo., points to a trend, experts warn. With children now learning how to use computers as early as preschool age, it's not surprising they can deftly navigate the Web -- often into dangerous areas.
"There are forums on the Internet where, unfortunately, kids can learn how to make a bomb, how to buy weapons, and even learn how to make drugs," said NPD Det. Mike Sullivan, who led the creation of the Safekids site. "Most parents are surprised at how easily their kids can get this information."
And with an estimated 96 percent of American K-12 classrooms to be wired for the Web by the end this year, Internet safety has become a high priority. There are currently more than 20 different pieces of legislation under consideration in Congress dealing with Internet content ranging from pornographic pictures to information Det. Juliet Fabbri
presents "SafeKids" at
an area grade school.
presented with the intent to harm others, such as bomb-making. But legislators and law
enforcement officials agree they can only go so far in policing Internet use.
"It's very hard to regulate something as broad as the Internet without violating a person's rights," Sullivan said. "The best we can do is make sure parents and their kids know how to recognize some of the dangers."
Narrowing the Gap
One of Safekids' primary goals is to help close the technology gap between parents and their children. Police officers investigating Internet- crime complaints frequently discover that parents have let their technology-savvy kids set-up the family computer with little or no supervision. These same parents are later shocked to discover that their child controls access to chat rooms, newsgroups and Web sites containing offensive material.
"Kids pick up the technology easily," said NPD Det. Juliet Fabbri. "In fact, their technical prowess develops far faster than their capacity for common sense. It's up to the parents to be sure their kids' skills in both areas mature concurrently. The safest kids on the Internet are those whose parents have invested a little time in making them street-smart."
Wagging the Dog
Law enforcement officials and software developers are combining their expertise to turn some of the stealthy techniques used by Internet criminals against them. Safekids contains information on sophisticated content-driven software packages that allow parents to selectively block undesirable sites. These programs, such as Cyber Sentinel, allow parents to configure the software to "pre-read" the site a child is attempting to load and block access to a site if the pre-read content contains prohibited material. At the same time, the software captures the screen image of the site and saves it to a password-protected file so parents can obtain a visual record of the sites their kids have tried to visit.
The simple safety techniques taught by the Safekids program have already made an impact. Sullivan said his department recently received a call from a parent who'd used knowledge gained from the site to discover that her daughter had been contacted by an apparent online pedophile. She was able to turn crucial data over to local authorities for investigation.
"It's a very rewarding type of arrest," Sullivan said. "It's always a challenge because offenders usually have better computer equipment than we do. They're intelligent enough to adapt their technology and software in response to our methods of detection."
Taking a Bigger Byte
Response to the site has been impressive, said Sullivan, who regularly coordinates content updates with Microsoft, which handles the technical implementation of the site. Since the site went online in February, the timeliness of its content has struck a worldwide chord. School administrators in Chile have asked permission to translate the Safekids presentation into Spanish. School officials in England and Australia have requested more information.
Sullivan and the NPD staff are busy preparing a second presentation that will educate kids and parents about other growing Internet crimes, including fraud, harassment and the illegal use of personal information. Tips will be posted making parents more aware of the volatility of data in the Internet environment.
The Safekids site has made strides in increasing awareness of Internet safety, but Sullivan and colleagues agree that the best defense for parents is to maintain an open dialogue with kids about the positive and negative aspects of the Internet, and to teach them to know the difference.
Tom Byerly is a writer based in Elk Grove, Calif. E-mail.