Cyberbullying and “sexting” were unknown just a generation ago.
But with the growth in Internet and cellular phone technology, they have become dangerous realities for the youth of today.
They were among the topics addressed by Barnstable Police Detective Kevin Connolly at a workshop Wednesday evening on Internet Safety.
The workshop, which drew 25 people to the hearing room at Barnstable Town Hall in Hyannis, also was broadcast on the town’s cable television channel.
Det. Connolly said the answer to dangers lurking on the Internet is not to keep children away from the online world, but rather for parents to make certain that their children are using the Internet safely.
Online skills and savvy are important for youths to acquire as they enter today’s working world, he said.
The detective said the Internet looms large to today’s youth.
“Their online life is just as important as their regular life,” Det. Connolly said. “You have to be a parent. You have to be part of their life.”
He advised parents to become interested in their children’s online activities such as social media or computer gaming, not to snoop on them but to become involved as a parent might with a child who has taken up an afterschool sport.
Instead of throwing a ball around, a parent could join a child in playing the latest cool Internet game.
As for cyberbullying, the detective said because of the Internet, a child who is bullied on the playground no longer has the option to escape to the safety of his or her home.
Cyberbullying involves the posting on the Internet of negative comments or unflattering photographs or videos of a person.
“There is no escaping it,” Det. Connolly said. “When you are being cyberbullied, you are being bullied everywhere.”
He advised parents of children who are being cyberbullied to notify school officials and police.
Sexting—sending sexual messages, photographs or videos through cellphones—poses another online danger.
At present, Det. Connolly said, one in six teens have received a “sext.”
Legally, the detective said, sexting can be seen as the distribution of child pornography.
Sexting and cyberbullying both are fueled by certain aspects of the Internet.
One is information acceleration, in that a single posting can spread very quickly far and wide to many different users.
“That is the scariest thing,” the detective said.
Another, Det. Connolly said, is that a posting on the Internet is the equivalent of writing something in ink.
Postings can take on a permanent nature as they spread across the Internet, even if the original post is taken down.
“Once you put it on the Internet, you can’t control where it goes, what someone does with it,” the detective said.
Online predators pose a further threat to youths.
They target young people over time, seeking to eventually persuade them to send sexual images of themselves or to meet them for physical encounters.
Det. Connolly said these contacts often are made through computer gaming.
“The kids are looking for attention,” the detective said.
The predators are ready to provide that attention to meet their own goals.
Law enforcement officials recently charged a Hyannis man, Kevin J. McNicol, with engaging in sexual predation.
Mr. McNicol, 23, was charged February 24 in federal court in Boston with sexual exploitation of a child.
He had previously had been charged by the Barnstable police with several child pornography charges.
At Wednesday’s workshop, Det. Connolly also urged that youths use caution on social media such as Facebook.
While youths may want to want to run up the number of their social media friends to appear more popular, the detective said that “online friends should be people who you know in the real world.”
Det. Connolly said youths also should use caution on what they post on their social networking site.
Inappropriate photos or comments can lead to the loss of friends or lost opportunities for jobs or entrance into college.
He told of a 19-year-old who applied for an internship with the Barnstable Police Department.
The department checked her social networking site, and found there a photograph of her with a marijuana bong and drinking beer.
She did not get the internship.
Among those attending Wednesday’s workshop was Carl Simons of Falmouth, whose children are aged 18, 17, 11 and 9.
“They’re connected all the time,” said Mr. Simons, who further said that he sees a big need for parental involvement.
He called Wednesday’s workshop very helpful.
Det. Connolly said he hopes to do another presentation at town hall in the future for children as well as adults, and a presentation later this school year at Barnstable Intermediate School in Hyannis.