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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Chat: Emily Bazelon, author of "Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy," will take questions about bullying and kids' use of social media. Friday at 1:30 p.m.