Cybercrime: Children in danger from sexting, social media bullying and electronic harassment

SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii - Once upon a time, bullies existed mostly on playgrounds, within hallways or inside of cafeterias.

Today, they seem to be everywhere: infiltrating homes by popping up on computers via chat rooms and blogs, or on cell phones via text messaging.

Specifically, bullies dwell in cyberspace, sending insulting or threatening e-mails, posting compromising photos, spreading nasty rumors or simply creating Web pages devoted to unpopular students.

Cyber bullying, as it turns out, has become a 24-7 activity of cruelty, where intended victims are unfortunately left with no place to run and hide.

"This is a huge, huge problem in our society," said Deidra Saina, a prevention specialist with Army Community Service's Family Advocacy Program, regarding the online phenomenon that has allowed perpetrators to use technology as a weapon.

"Social networking, in general, even for us here in the military, is getting out of hand," she said.

To combat this and other social media crimes, the Army is hosting a course called "Sexting, Cyber Bullying and Internet Safety: What Every Parent Should Know," in April, as part of a number of classes offered during Child Abuse Prevention Month. (See <a href="http://www.army.mil/-news/2010/04/16/38254-child-abuse-can-be-found-next-door-even-in-military-community/index.html">Related Article: Child abuse can be found next door; even in military community</a>.)

The first class is scheduled Monday, 6-7:30 p.m., here, at Sgt. Smith Theater. The second class is Thursday, 6-7:30 p.m., at Kyser Auditorium, Tripler Army Medical Center.

Due to the graphic nature of the subject matter, children won't be allowed to attend either of the classes, Saina said.

Electronic bullies are usually thought of as teenagers, like those at South Hadley School in New Hampshire, who are currently accused of bullying classmate Phoebe Prince, 15, into committing suicide back in January.

But the truth is, this insidious threat knows no age limit, and routinely attracts adults to commit cyber crimes as often as it does elementary-aged children.

"Cyber bullying can start as early as third or fourth grade," claimed Chris Duque, a retired Honolulu Police Department detective and one of Hawaii's foremost experts on computer and Internet crimes.

He'll be the featured speaker at this month's Internet safety classes, and plans to share with military parents and leaders many stories regarding the rampant problem of cyber bullying and sexting, which is defined as the sharing of sexually explicit photos through cell phones.

"Just a couple of years ago, we had a case here in Hawaii where a fifth-grader began bullying an ex-teacher at his old school," recalled Duque, who visits schools and community groups on a weekly basis to discuss Internet safety. "He created a page on MySpace and, by impersonating his fourth-grade teacher, began targeting kids at his old school, making racial slurs and using obscenities about them."

As a result, the victims' desire to attend school began to wane due to the constant ridicule, received both online and in person, from other classmates.

In addition, many of the students' parents, angered over the alleged misconduct by a state employee, immediately "marched down to the school and started ganging up on the teacher," Duque said.

"It was a mess," he continued. "The poor teacher, she didn't know what was going on. And to add insult to injury, the school officials wanted to put her on administrative leave until law enforcement could determine whether or not she was in fact, the perpetrator."

National statistics paint a rather bleak picture regarding the ever-growing problem of cyber bullying.

For example, recent reports from I-SAFE American Inc., a nonprofit foundation that educates youth on safely controlling their Internet experiences, reveal that 42 percent of kids have been bullied online, 39 percent of teenagers have sent suggestive messages over the cell phone, and 20 percent of teens have sent or posted semi-nude or nude photos or videos of themselves.

Duque, however, isn't a fan of statistics, and doesn't usually cite them during his presentations.

"People like to use numbers because they help paint a picture," said the former Detective of the Year and the person most responsible for uncovering Hawaii's first Internet fraud case back in 1999. "But whether it's 30 percent or 40 percent, it's a big deal. Even if the problem (affected) only 2 percent of our kids, it would still be a big deal to me."

While some may blame this society-wide issue on technology, Duque, 58, suggested that the real culprit is what is, or isn't, being taught within the confines of many homes.

"Technology is a part of the problem," he explained. "From my experience, it's mainly our attitudes and (lack) of ethics. Our social norms have been changing.

"Parenting is so much more different today than when I was growing up," he said. "Many of the parents aren't even around or they don't care. So, when I see their kids getting in trouble, I look at them and say, 'Well, the coconut certainly didn't fall too far from the tree.'

"I don't have a problem getting in parents' faces and telling them that their child, when they walk on a school campus for the first time, should already be ethically potty-trained," Duque added.

While parents don't have to be computer or cell phone geeks to attend this month's classes, Saina suggested that they should come with an open mind, understanding that the social media threats their children are facing these days are very real.

"If they're not on point, if they don't get aboard the train and start learning about what's out there, (bad) things will happen," she said.

Page last updated Thu April 29th, 2010 at 17:38