Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 28, 2013

Law enforcement, schools offer cybersafety tips for parents

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Call it the digital dilemma.

School kids today know more about the Internet, computers, social media, cellphones and chat rooms than their parents.

That doesn’t mean they know how to handle cyber predators, thieves, bullies and hackers.

At the same time, parents want to fulfill their responsibility to protect their children from harm, but don’t know how in a fast-paced and ever-changing digital world.

A national Pew Research Center study published last month revealed that 78 percent of teens now have a cellphone, and almost half (47 percent) of those own smartphones. That translates to 37 percent of all teens who have smartphones, up from just 23 percent in 2011.

One in four teens are “cell-mostly” Internet users, which means they typically access the Web using their phones, according to the Pew report. Meanwhile, most cybercrimes today occur via cellphones rather than computers.

With all that in mind, Traverse City Area Public Schools and the Grand Traverse County Sheriff Office offered an online safety presentation April 18 at Traverse City West Senior High to parents interested in learning more about the digital world and ways to help parents protect their kids from online dangers.

“TC West administrators realized, through conversations with parents, that their awareness and experience with the Internet varies greatly and many could use some support and strategies,” said Juleen Jenkins-Whall, a West chemistry teacher and part-time interim assistant principal who organized the event.

Detective Jason Otting offered insights into what he has encountered as the sheriff department’s cybercrime investigator. TCAPS technology director Todd Neibauer discussed the importance of parents having ongoing conversations with their children about Internet use and appropriate safeguards, somewhat analogous to how parents prepare teens to be independent drivers.

Tips they offered to parents include:

-Educate yourself about your kids’ Internet habits. How much time are they spending online? Who are they communicating with? What web site do they visit.

-Talk to them about the dangers of divulging personal information or arranging meetings with people they meet online. They also should know it is OK to tell you if they have had a bad online experience.

-Contact local law enforcement if you have information that might help catch an online predator.

-Keep the family’s computer in a public area of your home like the family room.

-Set guidelines for computer use, such as safety rules and time restrictions.

Neibauer said the best thing he can tell parents is to “be involved with your kids and their digital life” by creating accounts for Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites their children use.

“Friend them and follow them,” he said. “Even if parents don’t value digital devices, they need to understand these tools are important to their children.”

TCAPS provides about 5,000 laptops and netbooks and wireless Internet to its high school and middle school students through its technology program. Its wireless network is filtered, as required by federal child Internet protection laws. It blocks Facebook, porn, chat and gaming sites. The system tracks illegal activity like hacking and attempts to get into blocked areas, but cellphone use is beyond its scope.

Otting said he’s investigated “many” online predator cases in the year and a half he’s worked the sheriff’s department, but didn’t list specific numbers. Often predators are tracked to other areas. When that happens, police in those areas are contacted and provided the arrest information.

“That’s the problem,” Otting said. “This area’s predators are no longer just local but worldwide.

“It’s important that predator contacts be reported to police. Chances are that the person is probably doing the same thing in the area where he lives and is getting away with it.”

His recommendations are similar to the TCAPS list. He also added two:

-Tell children they won’t lose their computer, phone and iPad if they are solicited by a cyber predator.

-Ask your kids to share passwords to their email, chat rooms, Facebook and other social media accounts and then make random occasional checks.

Otting said some parents are reluctant to ask for passwords because of privacy concerns. Coming up with a family digital media agreement offers parents an opportunity to have open and friendly discussions about safety issues and concerns.

“It’s still the parents’ responsibility to keep their children safe from harm,” he said. “My goal is not just to investigate cybercrime, but to get the word out. There are dangerous places on the Internet and kids need to be aware of that.”

The TCAPS website has three downloadable examples of "Common Sense Family Media Agreements" for children in grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 at That site also contains an online copy of the April 18 TCAPS presentation as well as home computer and cellphone filtering solutions. Other websites that provide more online safety information include: