Officer Rene Berti of the Burlington Police Department had a question for a room of 60 fifth-graders at Edmunds Elementary School. How many of them have a Facebook account? The students glanced around nervously until a few hands went up.
“You shouldn’t have it,” Berti informed the group of 10- and 11-year-olds. “That means you lied about your birthdays to get on there.” Facebook requires its users to be at least 13.
After Berti reassured the kids that she was not looking to get them in trouble, she asked how many of them have more than 300 “friends.” Four hands.
“My sister has over a thousand,” boasted one girl.
“I can guarantee she doesn’t know all of her friends,” Berti told the girl.
Berti is a school resource officer with the Burlington PD and an outreach specialist with the Vermont Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Since September 2011, she has given this hourlong presentation — called “Electronic Communications, Your Best Friend or Worst Enemy?”— to dozens of parents, students and school administrators throughout Chittenden County; more class presentations are scheduled this week. Berti says she has yet to encounter a group of kids without at least a few Facebook users.
Nearly half of all American teens now use Facebook, according to data from Fred Lane, a former Burlington school board chair, digital forensics expert and author of the 2011 book Cybertraps for the Young. As Lane reports, the average American child now owns a cellphone by the age of 10; 80 percent of those 10-year-olds own at least one gaming console that can be used to access the web. Shockingly, nearly one in four kids under the age of 5 now uses the internet regularly.
While the digital universe holds enormous potential to introduce children to the world, Berti says she’s trying to impress upon these students that the internet is also a potential minefield of legal, ethical and moral hazards: sexting, hacking, illegal downloads and more dangerous behaviors such as cyberbullying, sextortion, child pornography and online predation.
How does Berti teach 10-year-olds that those seemingly benign after school activities on their laptops, smartphones and gaming devices can have lifelong and potentially deadly consequences? She broke the ice by saying some students might find these topics awkward, embarrassing and even scary. “But I’m not doing it to embarrass you guys or make you feel awkward or scare you,” Berti said. “I’m doing it to open your eyes and let you know what’s out there.”
Berti offered a few cautionary tales about young people who’ve gotten in serious trouble online.
She shared the story of a San Diego girl who met a boy on a website designed for kids with chronically ill parents. The two swapped stories about their schools, where they lived and what sports they played. The boy shared a photo, purportedly of himself, in a high school football uniform. She, in turn, told him that her father was a cop — and which shifts he worked.
“It seemed like he was a very nice young man,” Berti told the students. “Turns out, this was a very dangerous man. Giving him all that personal information, he knew where she lived, where she went to school and when she was home alone. And, unfortunately, one day he showed up at her house and attacked her.”
Berti also talked about several high-profile Vermont cases. Without mentioning names, she discussed the 2009 South Burlington sexting case in which 18-year-old Isaac Owusu, then a star high school athlete, asked teenage girls to photograph or videotape themselves performing sex acts and send him the results. Owusu was eventually charged with lewd and lascivious conduct.
Berti also told the story of Ryan Patrick Halligan, the 13-year-old Essex Junction boy who committed suicide in October 2003 as a result of cyberbullying. One of the students said she knew the Halligan family personally.
Berti also reminded kids that when they post personal information about themselves online, it’s visible to their parents, friends, neighbors, coaches, hackers, future employers and even the police. Most of that data live forever, she noted, and could affect their college applications, job interviews — even future spouses and children. The Burlington PD researches the cyber life of all its recruits, she added, offering some catchy but powerful slogans, such as “Pause before you post,” “Time doesn’t bring honesty or trust” and “Once you hit send, there’s no taking it back.”
Many of the Edmunds students already seemed to know what info shouldn’t be disclosed online, including their home addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers and the names of family members. But many didn’t know, until Berti told them, that online predators routinely use anonymous screen names and seemingly innocuous information to figure out how old they are, where they live and where they go to school.
The question-and-answer session at the end of the hour revealed the prevalance of online predators. At least three students in the room recounted incidents in which someone they didn’t know contacted them online and asked for personal or private information.
Among them was a boy who claimed that a girl he knew kept sending him instant messages, asking for nude pictures of himself; the boy said he told his mother, who called the police.
Another boy in the class said he received an instant message asking his age while he was playing an online computer game. “I find that really creepy,” he said.
Several of the Edmunds staff stayed behind to discuss the presentation and the need for more like it. Edmunds librarian Kathy Neil recalled that when she was in fifth grade, the cops used to come around to warn kids about drugs and their various street names.
Today’s pushers are online. Melissa Hathaway, Edmunds’ school counselor, said it’s vital to “get this information to kids before they’re in the thick of it.” She wondered aloud whether her school could offer internet-safety classes earlier — both to the kids and their parents.
“What we’re seeing is that parents are pretty concerned and aware of getting kids information about potential predators and being safe online,” Hathaway added. But they’re less worried about online interaction between their children and their peers. And that can be just as dangerous.
Berti explained that she’s already begun teaching a simpler version of this class to kindergartners. Neil said that she, too, has begun work with kindergartners and first-graders around digital safety.
How does one teach children so young about the dangers in the virtual world when they’re still learning about dangers in the real world?
The goal, Neil said, is to convey to them the idea that an online community can be just as exciting to explore as the real world — and just as perilous. As she told the little ones, “You wouldn’t go walking in the community without a parent with you, so you wouldn’t do that on the computer.”