Keeping young Islanders safe in cyberspace
Internet safety expert Katelyn LeClerc offered some practical advice about enjoying the positive aspects of online communication while avoiding potential dangers in presentations last week for middle-school aged students, their parents, and educators.
"What we're going to talk about tonight, and I said this to the kids as well, is that I am here to scare you. I am here to overwhelm you a little bit," Ms. LeClerc told the adults-only audience at Oak Bluffs School on November 5. "Because the good news is, it's so simple to take steps to prevent it. It's all about being proactive."
Comcast, the Martha's Vineyard Public Schools, and The Martha's Vineyard Times sponsored Ms. LeClerc's program, which included three presentations, two aimed at seventh- and eighth-grade students, and one evening session for adults. Ms. LeClerc created her age-appropriate presentations for kindergartners to high school students and an adult version while working as the former Internet safety program coordinator for the Massachusetts Attorney General's office.
The Martha's Vineyard Times.
Photo by Nelson Sigelman
Ms. LeClerc's morning session with seventh- and eighth-graders at West Tisbury School also included the same grades from Tisbury School and the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. Her afternoon session at Edgartown School included Oak Bluffs students.
"She had a nice way of involving the children," said Tisbury School principal Richie Smith. "The content in itself is riveting, but her style made it that much more engaging."
Ms. LeClerc's presentation had an immediate impact on student awareness, Mr. Smith said. "We've already had a couple of situations where children are letting our counselors and teachers know about certain things - not in the way of stalking by a predator, but examples of instant messaging where some of what the kids say back and forth to each other comes across as Internet bullying, or some comments that are very unkind," he explained.
Superintendent of schools James Weiss, who attended the school presentations and evening program, gave Ms. LeClerc high marks. "I thought she did a wonderful job, especially with the kids," he said. "They were really attentive, and I thought it was an excellent presentation, which gave them good information. She did a great job with the adults, too, and also gave parents good information."
Arming parents with knowledge
In opening remarks at the evening program, Comcast director of marketing John Mataraza recalled that he used his social security number as his first email address in college. As Internet technology evolved, so did the need for security. "We watch the Internet cloud very carefully for nefarious activities," Mr. Mataraza said. He recommended that parents visit Comcast's website for information about safety issues. "Being more aware is the best defense," he said.
Last week's Island visit was the second for Ms. LeClerc. In March 2006, The Martha's Vineyard Times published a series of articles about Island teens' postings on MySpace.com, the popular social networking site. The resulting community reaction prompted The Martha's Vineyard Times, in conjunction with Island school officials, to invite Ms. LeClerc to the Vineyard as a follow-up. She spent four days in Island schools and spoke to adults in an evening forum.
In introducing Ms. LeClerc at last week's program, Times managing editor Nelson Sigelman noted that, "The issue of MySpace and Internet safety has receded from the front pages, but the issues that surround the evolving ways people receive and share information remain."
As Ms. LeClerc pointed out to a small audience that included parents, educators, and Dukes County Health Council's youth task force members, "It's all about being proactive - there are simple things we can do before Internet safety issues become problematic."
Internet crimes against children are among the most under-reported, Ms. LeClerc said. She advised parents to tell their children that if any Internet communication makes them uncomfortable, "First, open your mouth - tell someone."
Social networking site safety
Regarding social networking sites, Ms. LeClerc said that sexual predators and sex offenders are an ongoing issue, although the site operators are trying to find a solution. On July 24, 2007, MySpace removed as many as 29,000 profiles found to belong to registered sex offenders, she said.
"However, those were accounts for the dummies that used their real names," Ms. LeClerc added. "I think these sites are trying, but they just can't keep up."
She said when she talked to students earlier in the day, she asked for a show of hands to see how many children had a MySpace page. A lot of them raised their hands, including quite a few younger than the age limit of 14.
"There is absolutely no way my kids would be on MySpace or Facebook if they were under 14 years old," Ms. LeClerc said. However, knowing that many children will ignore the age restriction and use the sites anyway, she said she warned students to be wary about communicating with strangers online and to safeguard their personnel information.
Ms. LeClerc said that many teens also do not realize that once something is posted on the Internet, it never goes away. "Websites are like tattoos," she tells them, and warns that college admissions offices and future employers may view what they post on their Internet profiles.
Despite the negatives, Ms. LeClerc said, "Personally, I think social networking sites are great. I use them personally, I use them at work. They're fascinating, they're addictive - I think they're wonderful." She encouraged parents to try out the sites themselves, even going so far as to set up their own Facebook pages.
Keeping a watchful eye
Ms. LeClerc highly recommended that parents install computer monitoring software, which tracks keystrokes, messages in and out, and sites visited. "Some parents think it's sneaky, to which I respond, better yet, tell your children you're going to put it on," Ms. LeClerc said. Many children and teens already know how to delete information recorded on the computer as "history" so that parents do not see what sites they have visited, she added.
More importantly, Ms. LeClerc said, "Get those computers out of their bedrooms." She suggested placing the family computer in a common area where parents can keep an eye on the screen as they walk by.
While Ms. LeClerc agreed that Internet games are fun and can be educational, she advised turning off the "chat" features. Although children will protest that they need those to access codes necessary to play the games, they can find them using a Google search. "Your children don't need to be talking to people in Taiwan," she said.
Over the last few years, Ms. LeClerc said that the addition of Internet access, text messaging, and photo messaging to cell phones has turned them into small computers, with the same potential for online dangers. She suggested that parents shut off the Internet, text messaging, and photo messaging on their children's cell phones as a safeguard against contact from someone unknown.
Many teens do not realize the serious implications of sending inappropriate photos on the Internet, whether by computer or cell phones, Ms. LeClerc said. A person who distributes such photos, particularly if the subject photographed is a minor (18 or younger in Massachusetts) may be charged with child pornography, which is a felony.
An incident at Salem High School this week illustrates the relevance of her advice. According to the November 7 Eagle-Tribune, sexually explicit photos of two female students were circulated among students via cell phone. The county attorney's office and police are investigating whether distributing the photographs warrants charging someone with distributing obscene matter, a misdemeanor, or child pornography, a felony, because one of the girls is under the age of 16.
Ms. LeClerc currently works full-time as an Intelligence Analyst for the Massachusetts State Police and offers Internet safety presentations as a private consultant. She recently completed a master's degree in criminal justice at Salem State College.