An East Bay cop tells how to protect kids from online dangers—without banning computers and cell phones.
Illustration by Ryan Heshka
The Internet can be a scary place for kids—and their parents. East Bay police officer Steve DeWarns knows that better than anyone. As an investigator, the 19-year police veteran once posed as a 13-year-old girl in a chat room. Within minutes, he received a message from a 46-year-old man looking to have sex. The Danville father now consults for local and federal law enforcement, and speaks at Bay Area schools and on national TV about such hot-button issues as cyber bullying and “sexting.”
When he takes his message to schools, he mostly gears it to kids from fourth through eighth grades, believing that it is important to introduce online safety and etiquette concepts as early as possible.
Diablo: When you talk to parents, one of the first things you tell them is don’t be afraid of the Internet or ban kids from using computers.
I’m very pro-technology. But, based on my experiences as a detective, working with online predator cases, I try to help make parents and kids more aware of what they’re posting and how it’s used online. I also monitor how kids are using the technology. It’s constantly changing and evolving.
What are the big social-networking sites among kids right now?
Facebook. But there are a ton of social-networking sites out there that parents are unaware of. Club Penguin and Webkinz [which are geared toward younger kids] are, in a sense, chat rooms. Gaia Online, World of Warcraft, Second Life—these are chat rooms where you play games and can have your character wander into a room or a place, and start talking with other people.
How old do you think kids should be to get their own e-mail, instant messaging, or Facebook account?
I have my own opinions and feelings. I refer parents to a parental resource guide that McAfee publishes. It gives some guidelines on what age you find some kids wanting to use e-mail, instant messaging, or social networking. Common Sense Media does the same thing. You can read the guidelines and decide what’s best for your family.
When kids sign up for an e-mail account or onto a social-networking site, what basic safeguards should they follow?
They shouldn’t use screen names that are their first name or their age, or say anything about what year they were born, what school they go to, or what year they are going to graduate from high school.
When you talk about today’s online risks, you’re no longer just talking about PCs or laptops, are you?
The cell phone is the new computer. If kids have a cell phone, they can surf the web, they can text, they can update a social-networking page. They can do virtually everything they can on the computer.
Cell phones also play a significant role in what you consider today’s biggest online hazards: cyber bullying and sexting. Aren’t there cases of kids getting prosecuted?
A girl flashes, or a boy pulls down his pants [for someone with a cell phone camera]. Even if it was done as a joke, if it gets sent out to friends, that is technically distribution of child pornography. I don’t necessarily think that we need to start arresting and putting kids in jail for this. But we don’t want those images getting out there, traded, distributed, sold, and remanufactured in the hands of some child predator. I think you’ll see some new laws around this whole area of sexting.
What is it about the Internet that makes kids do and say things they wouldn’t normally do?
I’ve dealt with many schools where the parents [of a suspected cyber bully] are brought into the office and handed transcripts. The parents read them for the first time and say, “No way; it’s not my kid.” I always say, “It is. Your sweet little angels are out there pretending to be something that they’re not.” They talk very graphically because they can remain anonymous, hidden behind a fictitious screen name. So they will talk very graphically, more than they would face-to-face, even with their best friends. I call it Internet courage. They come out of their shell and become a totally different person. They try out new identities.
Can cyber bullying be more damaging than old-fashioned playground bullying?
With the playground bully, you know who the bully is. Because of the anonymity online, you don’t know who your attacker is. On the playground, it might be one person bullying you or several people. In cyberspace, you could have hundreds of posts directed at one particular victim. School can be bad enough for victims of a bully, but they get home, go online, check their e-mail, and they’ve got postings coming in.
You say that many victims of cyber bullying or sexting are reluctant to speak up and tell their parents. Why is that?
They’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble. Maybe because they’ve gone to a site that Mom and Dad said no to. Or they’re afraid of being restricted from the computer. Another reason? They’re embarrassed. Maybe someone has posted something about a boy being gay, and hundreds of kids are saying the same thing. Or someone has called a girl promiscuous, a slut, a whore, and now these kids have got to share that with Mom and Dad, and are Mom and Dad going to believe what’s written out there? Parents should have open communication with their children so that their children always feel comfortable coming to them with anything that happens.
Do you advocate using parental controls?
Absolutely. I know parental controls are restrictive. They can limit your children from having access to legitimate sites when they are working on a research paper for school. But that’s the time you sit down with your kids and log in with your user account, and you help them out with their homework, and then you log them back into the secured site. Most parents admit they won’t let their kids watch whatever movie they want. You apply the same rules to the Internet. If you’ve taken any time to surf the web, you’re a couple clicks away from some very graphic stuff. As your kids get older, you can release some of the controls.
How do you balance wanting to give your child privacy and making sure she’s not doing anything risky?
Most parents, myself included, are not that interested in spending hours reading their kid’s e-mail, or in what their kid is saying to his or her friends. I’ve had parents who installed software in stealth mode contact me later and say they were very thankful. Those are parents who had a child at risk. If you’re getting that gut feeling that your child is doing things she probably shouldn’t, you might want to act on those feelings. I’m a fan of being honest with your kids, telling them ahead of time that we have parental controls and here are the reasons why.
What’s your bottom-line advice to parents?
Maintain open lines of communication. Monitor and set time limits on how long children can be on the computer. This can be very low-tech, such as keeping the computer in the family room. Or it can be high-tech, in that you install some software. And don’t let the Internet become the babysitter.
For more resources on safe use of computers and cell phones for kids, visit DeWarns’ website at internetchildsafety.net. ■