Parents hooked on Internet safety forum
Katie LeClerc, Internet Crimes Against Children Internet Safety Program Coordinator, speaks with one of the participants at Tuesday night's presentation on Internet safety. Photo by Nelson Sigelman
From the moment she announced, "I've got a loud, obnoxious voice, and I don't need a mike," Katie LeClerc captured the attention of parents and educators at an Internet Safety Forum on Tuesday night.
But it was the subject matter and Ms. LeClerc's conversational style and energetic delivery that held approximately 150 attendees spell-bound for the next two hours in the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center.
The program's most dramatic moments occurred when Ms. LeClerc entered an America Online chat room. With her computer screen projected on the stage screen, the attendees watched as Ms. LeClerc entered the chat room and identified herself as a young, bored teenage girl at home in her room.
She explained that as soon as her screen name appeared, other online users, including possible sexual predators, would be looking up her profile to see if she was of interest.
Within a minute or two, three instant messages popped up on the screen, from senders who identified themselves as older males. After only a few one-line exchanges, one of the chat participants asked Ms. LeClerc for a photo.
Many parents seemed shocked. For Ms. LeClerc, the Internet Crimes Against Children Internet Safety Program Coordinator in the Corruption, Fraud and Computer Crime Division of the Office of Attorney General Thomas Reilly, it was a slow night. She said often the volume and nature of the responses is more alarming.
Throughout the evening, Ms. LeClerc referenced her own personal experiences both as a young girl who had an on-line confidant who fit the profile of an Internet predator and as a professional who visits schools across the state.
Attendance at the program was restricted to adults age 18 and over, due to the graphic nature of Ms. LeClerc's discussion about the dangers children face on the Internet and what parents can do to educate them, monitor their activities, and control their computer access.
Yesterday, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) Principal Peg Regan commended Ms. LeClerc. "I thought she gave out extra-good information, while at the same time was not being anti-computer or anti-Internet," she said. "She was so informative, yet not an alarmist, and offered parents some very good guidance."
At age 23, Ms. LeClerc is young enough to relate to students as a contemporary member of the computer generation, which relies on instant messaging more than a phone to keep in contact with friends. But her professional life has introduced her to the realities of gruesome Internet-related sex crimes.
Among the topics Ms. LeClerc addressed was MySpace.com, the popular social networking site. "Is there anyone who doesn't know about MySpace?" Ms. LeClerc asked parents Tuesday night. No one raised a hand. "I could easily spend four hours talking about this topic alone," she said, adding that she would only touch on some highlights.
Although there are many social networking sites on the Internet, Ms. LeClerc said that MySpace, which has about 109 million members and gains another 500,000 new ones a day, "blows the other sites away."
She described the ways in which young people use MySpace and similar sites to keep in touch with friends and describe their interests with personal profiles. Although all the sites require participants to be 14 or older, the websites have no mechanisms to verify age.
Ms. LeClerc said she recommends that all users maintain a private profile so that only authorized members of a person's network of friends can view that information. However, she cautioned against a false sense of security because a site search can still reveal information about someone, including the person's photo, name, age, sexual orientation, and location.
Yesterday, Ms. Regan said she also found it interesting to learn from Ms. LeClerc that using a web search using a child's MySpace screen name on Google also can bring up their profile, without going into the actual site. "Another thing I found interesting is that Ms. LeClerc said children are more afraid of their parents reading what they've written online than of a predator," Ms. Regan said.
In one of the evening's more dramatic moments, Ms. LeClerc displayed a real MySpace page she had located several weeks ago for a young man named "David," who listed his age as 15 but added in a line underneath, "I'm really 21."
She displayed a page showing photos of David at the beach and with friends. She said he seemed like a pretty nice guy.
She then said she wanted to show another page for David. The next image was taken from the state Sex Offender Registry Board online database showing that "David" was a Level Three sex offender with numerous convictions for sex crimes with minors.
He gave his age as 15 so he could have access to profiles of children who are under 16, Ms. LeClerc said.
"He was dumb enough to use his real name on his MySpace page - it just shows you these guys aren't rocket scientists," she said. In fact, in one Massachusetts county alone, Ms. LeClerc said she found 20 names of sex offenders who had used their real names on their MySpace pages.
Parents do have recourse, she explained. If a child under age 14 appears on MySpace, a parent can call or notify the site online, and the page will be removed within 48 hours. For older children, however, deleting their profile requires use of their password. During a question session, one man asked why MySpace releases so much information. Ms. LeClerc said the attorney general's office is looking into that issue.
If you were a parent, at what age might you consider allowing your child to be on MySpace? one woman asked. "If I were a parent, my child would not touch any social websites," Ms. LeClerc responded emphatically.
Assuring her audience that she was not there to tell them how to parent, Ms. LeClerc encouraged them to open the lines of communication with their children about the Internet. While most children have been taught the rule, "Don't talk to strangers," they don't make the connection that it applies to someone on the Internet as well, she said.
When sexual predators are successful in striking up an online relationship with a child, they use a careful and subtle "grooming" process to win a child's trust, Ms. LeClerc said. Consequently, the number one response law enforcement officials hear from child victims is, "But he was my friend."
Ms. LeClerc also shared her own experience. As a teenager, she got caught up in an online relationship that almost led to a meeting with a possible sexual predator. Fortunately, she had been using a computer at the home of a family for whom she babysat, and her access to the Internet was cut off when they moved away. Ms. LeClerc said she shared the story because it illustrates that any child - even one who is a good student, participates in sports and school activities, and has friends and a loving family, as she did - can be vulnerable to online predators.
Ms. LeClerc offered five rules for online safety:
1. Learn about your Internet Service Providers and what safeguards they offer. Call them for assistance in setting up parental controls online.
2. Install monitoring and or filtering software.
3. Do not allow children to post photos of themselves or send them to anyone online, because the pictures can then be sent to anyone and altered for use on child pornography sites. Ms. LeClerc also advised protecting online family photo albums with a password.
4. Tell children never to have a face-to-face meeting with someone they have met online. While that may seem like something children would already know, don't assume they do, and tell them anyway.
5. Monitor the times of day a child accesses the Internet and the duration of his or her online session. Excessive time online, especially during evening or late night hours, may be indicative of a problem. "There is no reason children need to be using the Internet after 9 pm," Ms. LeClerc said. "When we go online undercover, we go on at 9 or 10 pm, because that's when predators are online."
Above and beyond those five rules, Ms. LeClerc said her number one rule is, "Keep the computer out of your child's bedroom and in an area open to observation."
The role of computers in everyday life keeps growing, Ms. LeClerc said. "The Internet makes it possible to 'hang out' with a group of your friends without leaving your room," Ms. LeClerc said. "It's imperative to set limits on your child's use of the Internet."
Ms. LeClerc also warned parents not to think that living on Martha's Vineyard offers any protection from Internet dangers. "It's happening everywhere, and it's happening here," she said.
After the program several people spoke to Ms. LeClerc. "I'm really pleased the school sponsored this," said Jean Kelleher of West Tisbury. "As parents, we need as much information as possible to be effective in monitoring sites. We can't be diligent enough."
Laura Entner of West Tisbury said she was thrilled with the program. She suggested it would be great if it was offered again in a few months, as more parents would probably want to attend once they heard about this one.
Debby MacInnis, a children's librarian in Edgartown, said she thought it would be helpful to offer a seminar for parents that would walk them through a step-by-step computer instruction program on monitoring their children's Internet activities and checking websites.
Yesterday, James Weiss, superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools, said the forum was "awesome" and provided a lot of useful information for parents. He said a few people who attended the forum had told him that "part of them is scared stiff from what they learned, but part of them is very happy that they learned it."
Amy Lilavois, MVRHS school adjustment counselor, said she thought that parents learned a lot from the program. "Ms. LeClerc opened up parents' eyes last night with information they thought they knew and didn't, and she opened up the world of predators to all of us," she said. "Hopefully this will open up communication between parents and their children about the Internet, and we'll all go home, sit down with our kids, and go over everything."
In addition to the Tuesday night presentation, Ms. LeClerc has also been making presentations in the Island schools this week, offering three different programs for children in grades three through 12. Ms. LeClerc's visit was sponsored by the office of the Superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, and The Martha's Vineyard Times.