Q&A with Kim Carter, church member and law enforcement agent
I understand that you recently led a seminar for the Memorial Road church on the topic of Internet safety. Can you tell me a bit about the format, the reason for the seminar and what ground you covered?
Several MRCC members had been asking the Education Ministry about the possibility of holding an Internet safety program. Knowing that I am in charge of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in Oklahoma, I was approached about delivering the program, and I gladly accepted. I gave the first presentation on a Wednesday evening, and had about 130 people attend. I was asked to give the presentaion a second time on a Sunday evening. The second presentation was also well attended by about 125 people.
Since I had less than an hour to conduct the presentation, I told the audience I had two goals that evening. First, I wanted to give the participants resource materials they could use to self-educate themselves about Internet safety. The second goal, and the most important, I wanted to convince them that the danger was real and they should all be concerned about what their children are doing on the Internet.
Was this an important issue for the congregation to address? Why?
I believe it is important for churches to confront issues that affect their members, and the issue of Internet safety is certainly a viable topic for discussion. This can be a very distasteful topic, because most people are not comfortable talking about things like child pornography and child molestation. These are realities we rationalize away by convincing ourselves we are not in danger of being victimized by such things because of our lifestyle–meaning we are good Christians and only socialize with those who think like we do. The problem with that mentality is that you do not know what even your best friend is thinking or doing in the privacy of their home or office. Across the nation, and here in Oklahoma, we have arrested people from all walks of life, including preachers, teachers, church leaders, youth activity leaders,coaches, firemen, and police officers to name just a few. The point I am trying to make is that no one is insulated from this danger.
How big a concern should My Space/the Internet/etc. be to parents and teenagers?
The Internet is probably one of the most exciting advances in technology in the history of the world, in many ways equal to the invention of the printing press. It is amazing how much information is available on the Internet, and how the Internet is being utilized in our day to day business and our lives. It is a great tool! However, as humans, we always find a way to take something useful and make it into something bad. That is what has happend to the Internet. It can be used in a positive way, or it can be used in a negative way. For example, the “social networking” sites like My Space, Facebook, and Xanga are really nothing more than a technologically advanced version of a “pen pal” that many chldren had in the 50’s and 60’s. However,instead of just writing to just one person, it is possible that millions of people could access a person’s page on one of the social networking sites. Young children and teenagers think they are safe from harm because they are accessing the Internet from the safety of their home. Most kids would not personally meet a stranger they met on the Internet, but in my presentation, we show them how easy it is to track them using only the limited information they post. Throw in the danger of pedophiles using these sites to locate possible victims, and you have a potentially dangerous situation. Left unchecked, a child’s use of the Internet is something every parent should be concerned about.
Just an aside, most of the social networking sites such as My Space and Facebook are doing what they can to control illegal activities on their sites. Because of media attention, these sites are often thought of by parents to be in the same league as commercial pornography websites, which is just not true. They work very closely with law enforcement to stop illegal or inappropriate activity from continuing on their sites.
Are there steps that parents and/or teenagers should take to protect themselves?
There are lots of resources available for people wanting to learn more about Internet safety. A good place to start is by going to www.NetSmartz.org and reviewing their information about online safety. The NetSmartz program is produced in cooperation with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and has various interactive programs such as games and video clips available that are tailored to children of all ages, from pre-kindergarten to high school. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children also has a website at www.missingkids.com that has a lot of good information on this topic. There is just too much information to put in a short article, so I encourage everyone to visit one of these resource sites for more in-depth learning.
There is a lot to be learned about Internet safety, but there are a few things I would like to point out that I think are especially important. First, establish appropriate rules for Internet use, such as what sites your kids can visit, who can they talk to, and how long they can be online. Treat Internet use just like you would if your kid was going out some night with friends. Ask the same type of questions like “Where are you going, who are you going with, what will you be doing, and when will you be home?”.
Second, make sure your kids are not afraid to come to you if something happens to them on the Internet that makes them uncomfortable or scared. You need to know if they are being solicited by a possible pedophile, or they are the target of cyber-bullying. And be prepared to deal with such situations in a reasonable manner. As parents wanting to protect our children, our first reaction is to ban the kids from using the Internet. I heavily discourage this in most situations, because after you reinstate their ability to access the Internet, guess what they will do if they are approached again? You can almost guarantee they will not report it to you, because they are afraid they will lose Internet privileges again. Remember, in most cases, it is not the child’s fault that something has occurred. They are a victim, and should be treated as such.
There are lots of other things parents should know, but the last thing I would like to discuss is what they should do if something bad comes to their attention. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children runs a hotline known as the “CyberTipline” that can be used to report any possible illegal action targeting children, or even adults, discovered on the Internet. You can report incidents via a website at www.cybertipline.com or by telephoning 1-800-843-5678. It is very important that problems get reported so law enforcement, or even the Internet service providers themselves, can take action against the offenders.
Other thoughts or observations?
It is common for us to view the issue from the victim’s perspective only. However, it is not uncommon for our kids to be on the other side of the issue also. The concept of “cyber-bullying” is a good example, and something kids today use without really understanding the consequences of their actions. Also, due to the percieved anonymity, kids are not afraid to do things that may seem exciting or adventursome. It is not uncommon for my agency to get notified that a teenage girl has been posting photos of her exposed breasts on the Internet. The child thinks there is no way it can be traced back to her, so maybe on a dare from friends, they post the picture, being very careful not to show their face. They are really surprised when one of my Agents knocks on their door and begins talking to their parents about the kid’s actions. The point I am trying to make is that our kids are not always angels, and as parents we should not be blind to that fact.
Oct. 1, 2006