Internet safety courses teach parents dangers of digital realm

Gwenda Kaczor/For The Washington Post

More than 100 parents of Loudoun County students filed into the auditorium of Briar Woods High School in Ashburn on a recent Monday night, clutching pamphlets and DVDs distributed by deputies from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.

Their eyes were focused on Maj. John Fraga of the sheriff’s office, as he introduced the second session of a two-part class titled “Internet Safety: What Parents Need to Know.” The parents had notebooks open and pens poised.

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Fraga asked how many had participated in the first of the two sessions. The vast majority of hands went up.

“Good,” he said, “You left with the right amount of fear.”

He was only half-joking. The point of the sessions, an initiative launched by the sheriff’s office in November, is to educate parents about the rapidly evolving digital world their children inhabit. But the frightening nature of the material highlighted in the classes also aimed to ensure that parents take the issue seriously and understand the need to keep pace with technology.

Take the case of a Loudoun teen who snapped a picture of herself in a miniskirt and midriff-baring tube top. Her intent was to mock a classmate’s outfit as a joke among a small group of friends, said Deputy James Spurlock, who leads the safety sessions.

The girl posted the picture to Snapfish, an online photo-sharing service. Because the photo was sent directly from her phone, and because her phone’s “location services” function was enabled — a feature that shows geographical information about where a communication originated — the picture included embedded data that revealed where the girl was when she took the photograph, Spurlock said.

A few days later, Spurlock said, a strange man showed up at the front door of the girl’s home. He told the teen’s mother, who answered the door, that he wanted to meet her daughter. He had a copy of the picture in hand.

The girl’s mother called the sheriff’s office, which sent someone to the house. The man, who had driven from New York to try to meet the teen, was not arrested, Spurlock said.

“It was creepy, yes,” he said. “But there’s no law against creepy.” The man returned to New York, and Loudoun authorities notified New York authorities about the incident, Spurlock said.

A chorus of murmurs rippled through the auditorium in response to the disturbing account.

The audience at Briar Woods was among an estimated 1,050 Loudoun parents who have heard Spurlock’s presentations since November.

Spurlock has been conducting community outreach on the topic for years, but his presentations evolved into a more organized and wide-reaching effort last year, when the sheriff’s office partnered with the public school system to offer the two-part session across the county.

Loudoun Sheriff Mike Chapman said the school system agreed that parents would benefit from a more thorough understanding of how children interact with others in the constantly changing technological landscape.

“As the technology changes, so has [Spurlock’s] presentation,” Chapman said. “Even now, as new technology comes out, we’ll have to redefine and readjust . . . but we want to get it out there to the parents, so they know what their children have access to and the dangers they face out there.”

The key, he said, is making sure that adults can keep pace with technological developments, so their children aren’t freely navigating in digital realms that their parents don’t quite understand.

“Parents have the maturity to understand when predators might be out there targeting their kids, while the kids are too young to recognize what might be a threat,” Chapman said. “But what a lot of the parents don’t know is all the ways that their kids are communicating through this new technology.”

The classes aim to introduce parents to basic Internet safety procedures and inform them about more advanced methods of controlling what their children can see online. The material covered includes social networking; sexting (sending sexually explicit texts or images by phone and texting); cellphone technology, applications and features; laptops and desktop computer capabilities; current trends; predatory behaviors; gaming systems; and monitoring techniques. The courses are strictly for parents, because of the graphic nature of some of the content covered.

At the Briar Woods session, Spurlock projected statistics onto a large overhead screen. He said the data were two years old, because of the time it takes to gather and analyze the information. Current statistics are probably worse, he said.

The parents absorbed the material with grim expressions: Three in five teens ages 12 to 17 admitted to sexting, and 71 percent of teen girls said they had sent inappropriate pictures to their boyfriends.

Two photos of pretty young girls appeared on the screen. One girl sent a nude photo of herself to a boyfriend, who circulated it widely and posted it online after they broke up. The other sent a topless image of herself to a boy she liked, who promptly shared it with all his friends. Both girls eventually committed suicide.

“These are real cases,” Spurlock said.

Kids are increasingly using Facebook and other social media to share information about where they are and what they’re doing, he added. Seemingly harmless posts, sent in seconds from a smartphone, can effectively convey critical information: the child’s whereabouts, whether they’re alone, and where they plan to go and when, Spurlock said.

“And once information goes out, it’s just gone,” he said. “There is no bringing it back.”

A photo of three smiling cheerleaders appeared on the screen. The newest
iPhones will boast a screen resolution that has the same level of high-definition imagery as a flat-screen television, Spurlock said. What many don’t think about is that the added clarity could make it easier for predators to discern identifying features in photographs and video: a street sign, the lettering on a shirt, all “searchable clues” that can be used to find kids. Even in the picture of the cheerleaders, he said, the name of their school team was legible on their uniforms.

Parents don’t often want to think that Internet crimes against children can happen in a place like Loudoun, Spurlock said. But because Loudoun is an affluent community, “kids have these devices at a very young age,” making them more vulnerable to predators.

Last year, the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office received 15 complaints related to Internet crimes against children, spokeswoman Liz Mills said. By late February, they had received nine complaints, she said.

At the end of the Briar Woods session, Spurlock reminded parents to urge their friends and neighbors to educate themselves, to stay informed and to contact authorities with questions or concerns if something doesn’t seem right.

“Usually we start getting phone calls from parents when they go home and talk to their kids” after the sessions, he told the group. “That’s the first time some realize their kids have already been victimized.”

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