June is Internet Safety Month – Get involved

By Jacqueline Beauchere, Chief Online Safety Officer, Microsoft Corp.

Dedicated to promoting online safety, June presents a unique opportunity for youth and parents to become better “digital citizens”, and to protect themselves and others from potentially harmful online content and activities, including topics that some may prefer to not even acknowledge let alone address.

“If you want to reduce (online) risks for children, engage and educate children and their parents,” Michael Sheath of the Lucy Faithfull Foundation last week told an audience at Europol headquarters in The Hague. “Prevention activities have value,” Sheath added, noting that such efforts are often less costly than reactive policing and have the ability to reduce problems “at the source.”

Sheath was addressing the Prevention and Awareness Joint Law Enforcement/INHOPE Conference, which brought together more than 150 representatives from global law enforcement and INHOPE hotlines to continue collaboration around combatting online distribution of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Along with others in the technology industry and NGOs, I had the opportunity to attend the conference as a member of INHOPE’s Advisory Board.

Microsoft has long been a proponent of public awareness-raising and education as a means of encouraging positive, desirable online experiences, and reducing those tied to inappropriate Internet content or unwanted online contact and activity. Indeed, technology and the Internet offer a wealth of learning, sharing, communications and fun, but people — especially parents and children — need to be aware of and guard against risky situations.

Children and young people may face a broad range of issues online, including impersonation and others pretending to be them; hacking and online bullying. Some of these concerns may be beyond their control, but oftentimes young people’s own actions and behaviours play a part in exposing them to certain risks. The Hague event focused on the darkest of “Dark Net” activities with presentations on preventing child sexual abuse and the online dissemination of CSAM, the use of child abuse images and “sextortion.”

Parents and child caregivers need to be aware of these dark web issues; how they can surface, and understand and appreciate that children online can be vulnerable. That’s not to say every child is at risk by simply being online. Rather, risks intensify if children are online, are uninformed and are unsupervised. Take “sextortion.” Many parents might be surprised to learn that certain adults are determined to manipulate children online to share sexually explicit images of themselves, and threaten various forms of online and offline retribution if children fail to comply. A single image, which may take the form of a “sexting” photo, shared with only one individual, can serve as a gateway through which young people can be exposed to an array of negative online experiences, including sextortion.

The U.S. National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) shared new data on sextortion at The Hague conference, including stats on how quickly the blackmail can begin. NCMEC reclassified 310 reports made to its CyberTipline between October 2013 and November 2014 as “online enticement blackmail.” Of those reports, NCMEC found that for more than half of them (57%), it was unable to determine how quickly the sextortion began. Of the remaining 43%, however, NCMEC determined that the sextortion began “immediately” in 82% percent of the cases, defining immediate as “within hours, days, weeks; less than one month.” In the remaining 18% percent of reports, the sextortion was “delayed,” according to NCMEC. More at: www.missingkids.org/sextortion.

So, what can parents and other trusted adults do? Quite simply:

  • Get involved in kids’ online lives
  • Start (and continue) talking openly about appropriate — and inappropriate — online behaviours
  • Ask (tough) questions that may make parents or kids uncomfortable
  • Listen closely and openly to the responses, and
  • Get help from technology.

To help start conversations, we created this resource: http://go.microsoft.com/?linkid=9838905. We also recently produced a factsheet entitled, “Let’s get real about sexting” to assist parents in understanding this newer and unfortunate phenomenon. To make use of available technology features, including family safety settings in Microsoft products and services, click here.

Finally, make a commitment this month to learn more about staying safer online generally, and make it a point to begin addressing some tougher online safety subjects. Visit our website and check out our host of educational resources at the Microsoft YouthSpark Hub.