Parents at Westford forum warned on Web dangers
By Kirk Boutselis
WESTFORD — State Trooper Chris Ware will admit that he has a pretty tough shell when it comes to viewing personal tragedies.
As a law-enforcement officer for more than 20 years, Ware has seen more than his share of fatal fires and horrific accidents. He even watched a child die in his arms.
But Ware said he was totally unprepared to oversee the Massachusetts Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, a position he started in February.
"The stuff I have seen since February has brought me to tears," Ware said last night before more than 250 parents at the Westford Regency who had gathered for a free Internet-safety seminar sponsored by Reichheld Ting Orthodontics.
His first cybertip forced him to view an online video of child pornography. He said he wasn't the same person after that point.
"I knew (Internet crimes) existed, but I didn't understand the scope of what I was getting into until I saw that video," he said.
Sgt. Michael Hill, a state trooper from Berkshire County who also serves on the task force, said children growing up in the digital age are potentially exposed to more threats online than in their own neighborhoods.
"Six or seven years ago, the biggest problem we had (with kids) was the giving out of personal information," he said. "Now kids don't care who they're talking to online. We have to explain to them what is an appropriate relationship."
Hill frequently monitors Internet chat rooms where identities are often obscured, files are shared and photos swapped. These rooms, he said, are the "hangouts" for Internet predators. Once they convince a child to talk to them, they will talk to them every day until they build a trust.
"(The conversations) always, always revolve around sex," he said. "It might start out timid at first, but it always leads to that."
Parents, he added, must be vigilant in the monitoring of their child's Internet use. Whether it is through establishing computer rules or knowing who is on their child's buddy list, they are the first line of defense.
"It's virtually impossible to prevent your kids from having an online life," he said. "But you can reduce incidents in your house by (as much as) 75 percent by having the computer in a common room."
Even with frequent monitoring, however, children are now more susceptible than ever to be victims of cyberbullying.
"The effect of cyberbullying is magnified 10 times because it can happen anywhere at any time," said Dana Gershengorn, an assistant U.S. attorney who is involved in prosecuting child-exploitation cases.
According to a recent survey among 1,500 fourth- through eighth-graders, 42 percent of students admitted they have been bullied at least once online, Gershengorn said.
With twice as many girls likely to get bullied than boys, "cyberbullying is limited only by your child's creativity," she added.
Unlike a schoolyard fight, cyberbullying is permanent and can lead to depression, low self-esteem, anger, suicide and eating disorders.
"If your child stops using their computer, then that is a warning sign," she said. "Children love their computers."
Parents, though, continue to struggle with a generation of tech-savvy kids.
"The more you find out, the scarier it gets," said Tom Schofield, a Westford parent who attended the seminar.
"It's mind-boggling," added Groton resident Eugenia Julio-Bishop. "My son is my IT guy. It's putting parents at a great disadvantage."
The crimes of a few are also putting worried parents and children on the defensive.
"Every opportunity for a friend is now lost in a stranger," Julio-Bishop said.
For more information on cyberbullying and how to keep safe on the Web, visit www.netsmartz.org, www.ikeepsafe.org or www.digizen.org.
(c) 2008 The Sun (Lowell, MA). All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc.