AVON — Lisa and Bill Dean, parishioners of St. Agnes Church, are on the brink of giving their son his first cell phone for his 13th birthday.
But first, they took time to learn about ground rules they can set to help their son stay safe.
They were audience members at the March 15 NetSmartz workshop, which St. Agnes School hosted for parents and community members to learn about helping minors use technology safely.
"There are some things we are doing right," Bill Dean said. "Right now, our computer is in a public place in our home."
Placing a computer in a public place was just one of many tips parents received from Pam Weaver, coordinator of community education for the New York branch of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which offers the NetSmartz program. Weaver stressed that parents should keep tabs on how their children use technology.
"If (a computer is) behind a child’s closed door, you have no idea what they are doing," she said.
Weaver also taught parents Internet safety conversation starters, and what behavior changes might indicate a child is being bullied through technology or is being groomed for manipulation by a sexual predator through lies, gifts or flattery.
According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study of online victimization of youths, 13 percent — or one in seven — young Internet users received unwanted sexual solicitations, and 4 percent of young people received aggressive solicitations when offline contact was made or attempted. Four percent of the youths in the 2006 study also reported that online solicitors asked them for nude or sexually explicit photographs.
Prosecutors who attended the St. Agnes School event noted that, depending on the situation, those who receive sexually explicit images or text messages from a child or teen may be prosecuted for possession of child pornography, even if the child or teen takes the pictures of himself or herself and willingly sends the material to others.
Those who create, distribute or possess child pornography may face decades in prison, said Assistant U.S. District Attorney Tiffany Lee, who coordinates the Department of Justice’s Project Safe Childhood Initiative.
Sadly, Lee said, trends show perpetrators are seeking increasingly graphic images of sexual abuse of children at younger and younger ages, including toddlers and infants.
Additionally, the instances of sexually explicit images and messages being exchanged among teens also has risen exponentially, she noted.
"People need to understand that no images will ever get subtracted from the Internet," she said, citing a case of Paraguay teen victims whose sexually-explicit images have been disseminated for the past decade, despite attempts to remove the images from the Internet.
"Their images are traded like baseball cards," Lee said of child pornography.
Lee urged caution when using all types of social networking, even if it purports to have privacy settings. She cited the example of the social-network site Facebook, which allows people to share information and photos with an online network of friends.
"Even if they just have 50 friends, and they set their privacy settings online to just their friends, they don’t know what their friends’ privacy settings are," said Lee, noting that items shared online can quickly travel far from their intended audience.
Advances in technology have led to new venues for exploitation, Weaver said.
"We can’t keep our kids in a bubble," she said. "The best thing we can do is teach them how to use the technology safely."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children trains kids on thinking first before they post information online, how to socialize digitally only with people they know and how to avoid posting personal information. Additional age-appropriate information for children and parents on how to avoid online risks is available at www.NetSmartz.org.
St. Agnes is planning that lesson for its students in the upcoming weeks, when it invites the team from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to return to make age-appropriate presentations, Principal Gerald Benjamin said.
Fourth-grade teacher Sandy DiPasquale said she is glad that advocates were able to connect the school community with the NetSmartz team. Students need to be reminded that Internet safety rules are for their own good, she said.
"We need to talk to our children so they know that we’re only doing this for their well-being because we love and support them and want them to always make good decisions," DiPasquale said.