Parents need to be diligent in protecting their children from Internet predators, but also from cyber-bullies, said cyber-safety expert Rob Nickel, Thursday night at the Margaret Parsons Theatre.
“Cyber-bullies and online predators work very similar, they gather information on their victims using the Internet,” Nickel said.
He should know. Nickel spent 14 years with the Ontario Provincial Police, half of which were spent on the force’s Child Pornography Section. His investigations, which began in 1996, were the first of their kind in Canada. During these sting operations, Nickel would go onto online chat rooms and forums posing as a sexual predator to lure other pedophiles out in the open, and when he did — the findings were often as unsettling as they were remarkable. His investigations saw him arrest many unlikely suspects, including two police officers.
“When they think they’re talking to another pedophile, it’s incredible how nonchalant they are about the what they’re doing,” Nickel said.
Upon retiring from the Ontario Provincial Police, Nickel set up Cyber Safety in 2004, an Internet security and information service, and his unique expertise on the motivations and behaviours of Internet predators has seen him appear on Dr. Phil and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Nickel told the crowd of more than a dozen families on Thursday night that this in no way makes him a parenting expert, but his career has shown him just how easy it is for malicious individuals to do damage online.
Nickel said parents can take a few simple steps to protect their children from cyber-bullying and predators. Firstly, he recommends monitoring what children are doing on the Internet at all times. Nickel has two daughters, aged 12 and 14, and told them they can only use MSN chat services if he is allowed to monitor the activity. Using a cyber-security program called McGruff, Nickel said he is alerted by text message if his daughters’ chat is flagged for certain words — swears, drug terms, even words like depression or suicide.
“I do this not only to make sure they are safe, but to also make sure they are not participating in any cyber-bullying,” Nickel said.
He also said keeping the computer in a family area, such as a living room or kitchen is important, because children usually get into trouble when they have the privacy of a bedroom to surf the Internet.
Nickel has spent the past two days speaking at Red Deer middle schools and said he instructed the students to tell a trusted adult if they are being harassed online. He said parents should save the original message if it involves threats because police can track the sender by their the Internet service provider (ISP) data.
Nickel said overall parents need to make decisions about how much access and to which site their children are allowed; he won’t permit either of his daughters to have a Facebook profile until they are adults.
“That’s just my personal opinion, but if you’re fine with your kids being on Facebook I do recommend you get on there yourself, figure out how it works and be their friend on the site so you can monitor them,” Nickel said.
“That’s the kind of effort it takes if you want to know if your children are safe online.”