As our children return to school – or start school for the first time – it’s a good time for parents and guardians to school themselves in one of the major dangers facing children: The Internet.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist. The Internet, of course, brings us many wonderful things – global connectivity, instant contact, news and stories from around the world, and numerous tools that make our lives easier. It can be our best friend when we need it to answer a question, or get directions, or plan a vacation. But, the Internet can also be our worst enemy – especially for children.

I am a police officer with the Burlington Police Department. Now, I work with Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations (CUSI). I have seen the rate of reports of Internet safety issues and crimes against children in Vermont rise. Today, 7 in 10 young people between the ages of 13 and 22 have been a victim of cyber bullying. Others are the victims of online predators and sexting.

That’s why we are taking a proactive approach, and we encourage you to as well. CUSI now works with local schools and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force to educate children and parents about the dangers of the Internet.

Here’s how you can start helping your children and family deal with Internet safety.

Step One: Know What the Biggest Internet Safety Threats Are

I have seen three major trends in Internet dangers. They include:

  1. Reputation Ruination. Children don’t know that what they post on the Internet, on social media, or in a mobile app, may have long-lasting consequences. It’s so easy to press a button and share a photo or text – but, once you send it, you can’t get it back. Somebody could use it against you in the future. Once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.
  2. Screen Strangers. When children are online, they may communicate with people they already know, but they may also build relationships with strangers. Think about this: Someone can get a lot of photos of Tom Brady and pose as him and lure children. Just because someone looks safe, doesn’t mean that they are safe.
  3. Preying Predators. Whether it’s an anonymous online predator or a cyber bully from school, all manner of predators are taking to the Internet. Many of them then engage in extortion or “sextortion,” meaning that they use bribery (the threat of publicly sharing an intimate photo) to keep people from breaking up or for money.

Step Two: Understand That Internet Crime is a Real Danger in Vermont

You may be thinking, “This doesn’t happen in Vermont.” I am here to tell you that it does – and it happens often. Just a few years ago, we dealt with a popular athlete at a local high school who was engaging in sextortion with underage students. He was brought to justice and is now registered as a sex offender. In 2003, 13-year-old Ryan Halligan committed suicide as a result of cyber bullying.

Step Three: Take Action to Protect Your Child or Children

There are steps parents and guardians can take to support, help, and protect their children. They include: 

  1. Communicate often. Be open with your child and children and don’t make certain topics taboo. Encourage sharing. Be real about everything. Answer questions versus getting angry.
  2. Be present. As parents, we may be distracted by technology ourselves, or use electronics as a babysitter. Know what your kids are doing online and keep up to date with devices. Let them have their privacy, but ask for passwords. If you are paying for it, you have the right to it.
  3. Educate yourself. A great website resource is NetSmartz.org that has great resources for parents and children.
  4. Report to local police. If you see something, say something. Reach out to your local police department, or leave a cyber tip with the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children task force.

Working together, we can protect the children in our community as best we can – and become stronger for it.

Watch “Electronic Communications: Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy”

Watch “A Compassionate Approach to Discussing Tough Topics with Teens: Navigating the World of Social Media, Sex, and High-Risk Behaviors”

Rene Young is detective corporal with the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations.

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