In a world where music on the Hi-Fi has been replaced by downloading tunes from Wi-Fi and friendly living room visits have become meeting strangers in chat rooms, juvenile online safety is of paramount importance to parents despite the age of their children.
Helping kids navigate the Internet safely and educating parents on cyber-bullying were just two of the topics presented recently by Naperville Police Detective Richard Wistocki at Holy Family Catholic School in Rockford.
Wistocki, who is also the president of BeSure Consulting and a member of the Illinois Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce (ICAC), spoke to parents and children from both the parish and school.
After spending 27 years in law enforcement, and seeing the devastation caused by cyber-bullying, Wistocki created BeSure Consulting, an outreach program on cyber-safety.
Wistocki is a leading authority on cyber-safety whose professional accomplishments include authoring a state Sexting Law and the State of Illinois Sexual Exploitation of a Child Law while also serving as a member of the U.S. Secret Service Chicago Electronic Crimes Task Force (CECTF) and the Illinois Attorney General’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (ICAC).
“The most prevalent threats to our kids today are cyber-bullying, internet predators, cell-phone applications, sextortion, and active sexting,” he said. “And the first line of defense against these threats is you, the parents. You are not only responsible for your kids in the areas of food, clothing, shelter and education; you are also responsible for what your kids do with their technology.”
Wistocki also warned that the lack of privacy experienced these days by adults also extends to their children.
“There is no such thing as privacy for children,” he said. “You, the parents, are responsible for your children and until they are adults, you need to have access to their devices. I don’t care if your child has cut the grass all summer or babysat all winter … they don’t own that device, you do.”
Wistocki said many parents mistakenly believe that their children “would never do anything inappropriate online” because they are “good kids”. Other parents may threaten their children with the loss of their computer or cell phone if the kids abuse their technology privileges.
But Wistocki said that neither way is effective in getting kids to “be good digital citizens”.
“Parents and kids need to have open and honest communication about electronic devices, establish clear boundaries for using the devices and kids need to know that if they make a mistake or are being threatened online, they can come to their parents with that situation,” he said.
Wistocki warned parents and students to be especially wary of social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat.
“The rules of social networking apps is that no one under the age of 13 is supposed to have an Instagram or Snapchat account,” he said. “When I give this presentation in schools, I’m seeing fifth and sixth graders who have these accounts. … It is a medically proven fact that kids’ brains are not developed enough to handle what goes on in these social networks.
“It’s all about feeling good and hormones, kids don’t understand what happens after they send that picture, after they talk to that person they just met online.”
Often times problems with sexting and sextortion occur when kids have access to their cell phones overnight or when they are in a peer group like at a party or sleepover.
“AThe common denominator for kids that are victims of sextortion is that they have cell phones or computers in their rooms all the time,” he said. “Their bedrooms are for sleeping…When your kids are using their cell phones late at night, typically, the parents are sleeping and the kids are up typing, reading and sending photos or videos. This is dangerous territory.
Wistocki also encouraged parents to act as a team when it comes to setting boundaries with their kids.
“We want the best for our kids,” he said. “But there has to be limitations, and if the parents represent a united front, no one is playing one parent off the other, both parents can enforce the same rules and the kids know that they can come to either parent if there’s a problem.”
Father Phillip Kaim, Holy Family pastor, said that he wanted to bring in Detective Wistocki and the BeSure program to help educate parents and kids on cyber-safety and the consequences of risky internet behavior.
“Today’s technology provides unique challenges for parents trying to keep their kids safe online,” he said. “We always want our parents to be one or two steps ahead of their kids and I think when it comes to technology, kids are usually one or two steps ahead of us,” he said. “Detective Wistocki is an expert in the field of cyber-bullying and online safety and he has provided some good tools in how parents can protect their kids.”
Kristin Dixon, a member of Holy Family Parish, was instrumental in bringing the presentation to Rockford.
“A relative of mine had attended one of Detective Wistocki’s workshops so he came highly recommended,” said Dixon, a mother of four who added that topics of internet safety and cyber-bullying are pertinent for parents of all school aged children.
“I had just been discussing these exact subjects with my high school freshman. I warned him to be cautious of what he posts, as once it is posted online, it’s out there forever,” she said. “I wanted to help parents be aware of all the dangers on the internet and how we can protect our kids. Just because our kids go to a Catholic school, they are not immune to the bullying and dangers of the internet.”
Dixon thought Wistocki’s talk was, “…very informative and eye opening as to what our youth face…with current technology and social media.”
Tom Lewis, who has young children, also felt that Wistocki’s program was very enlightening.
“My kids don’t have digital devices yet, but seeing this presentation definitely puts a lot of awareness in my mind on how to approach this topic and what to watch out for once my kids are older,” he said.
Keeping kids safe online, Wistocki said, comes down to transparency, boundaries and parental involvement.
As part of his presentation, Wistocki had each child present write down and give their parent the password to their electronic device(s). He strongly encouraged parents to go through social media accounts with their children so they can together identify profiles of friends or strangers.
Wistocki directed parents to his website — besureconsulting.com — for more resources in monitoring kids’ online activity.