Police chief discusses Internet safety

By Elisabeth Waldon

The Daily News (Greenville)

HOWARD CITY, Mich. (AP) When Steve DeWitt began his law enforcement career two decades ago, Internet crime was not a problem.

Today, inappropriate online activity keeps the Howard City police chief and the rest of his officers busy.

DeWitt gave a presentation on Internet safety for children and adults on a recent evening at the Timothy C. Hauenstein Reynolds Township Library.

According to library director Janice Williams, library employees often notice children and teenagers spending a lot of time on social networking sites at the library.

"We come across new stuff on the Internet all the time and we look at each other and say, 'I don't know if there's a law to cover this,'" DeWitt said. "People have got to take it upon themselves to protect themselves. Kids are putting too much information on the Internet, and I'm also finding adults are putting too much information on the Internet."

DeWitt discussed Internet-capable equipment other than computers and laptops, including cell phones and gaming devices.

"Instead of passing notes, kids are now texting," he said. "Instead of writing in a journal, kids are now blogging. Instead of dressing a doll, kids are now dressing avatars."

DeWitt detailed risky online behavior, including "friending" unknown people, posting personal information, embarrassing or harassing people, talking about sex, sending or posting provocative images, sharing passwords with friends or clicking on pop-up ads, which may lead to harmful Web sites. He said anything posted online and then deleted will still be somewhere in cyberspace.

"Three hundred years from now they'll be looking at the Internet and finding stuff we thought we deleted," he said.

DeWitt recommended parents communicate with their children, keep the family computer in the living room instead of a bedroom, use a filter and check the Web site history. He encouraged children and adults to make their social networking sites as private as possible.

"Facebook is a cool thing, but insist your child add you as a friend," he said. "Make your own account. Then you can go on every day and see what friends have sent and what your child has sent. Just insist that's a rule."

DeWitt is currently investigating a cyberbullying incident involving about a dozen Tri County High School students harassing a fellow student online. He said anyone who is the victim of cyberbullying should not respond to the bullies and should save the messages, block the bully online and report the incident to parents or police.

DeWitt recommended parents only give their children cell phones with restrictions and GPS tracking, and without camera capabilities.

He reminded audience members that while the age of consent for sexual activity in Michigan is 16, the age of consent for taking a nude photograph is 18. Sending nude photographs of underage males or females is a felony carrying a possible 20-year prison sentence.

"You can't have a policeman in your house every night watching the Internet," he said. "You've gotta do it yourself. The Internet is a blessing (and) a curse at the same time. Everything you could ever want to know is on the Internet and everything you don't want your kids to know is on the Internet."

Published: Mon, Mar 8, 2010