Whidbey News - Times

AN INTERNET EDUCATION: Police investigator offers tips for parents, teens to safely navigate web

Sierra Guy, an eighth grader at Oak Harbor Middle School, recently received a cell phone from her parents. ‘She’s very responsible,’ said her mom Adrienne Guy. ‘That was a deciding factor for my husband and I to make the decision.’  — Image Credit: Photos By Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

He likens it to the Wild West.

As an open source intelligence investigator for the Victoria, B.C., police department, Darren Laur has seen teenagers enter a new cyber world of impersonal, interpersonal digital communications over the past 10 years.

And like the Wild West, he has seen reckless behavior, a disregard for rules and disturbing consequences.

Laur crossed the border last week and landed in Oak Harbor, where he gave lengthy presentations to high school and middle school students and their parents about internet and social media safety.

Reaching out to teenagers in North America and educating them about the dark side of the internet has been both a professional and personal crusade.

He teared up when finishing a two-hour talk to parents at Oak Harbor High School last Wednesday night when he referred to the 108 students in trouble who had contacted him during his six years of delivering his program.

Most were victims of cyber bullying or social media extortion and didn’t know where else to turn. 

“It’s a passion and 108,” Laur said about the two main reasons he and his wife started a business called Personal Protection Systems, which includes the program about internet and social media safety. “Those are 108 kids who reached out to us for help because of suicidal thoughts or self harm because of sexting (texting inappropriate photos) or bullying gone wrong issues. And after they hear me speak, they trust me. Because I share with them that at grade 10, I considered taking my life as a result of bullying and that it gets better. Look at me, right? I’m the poster boy for it gets better. I have a wife. I have a son. I’m a staff sergeant. We have a company. It gets better.”

Laur emphasizes that although the internet can be a scary place, most kids are using the technology in productive and ways, doing “really cool stuff.” Students are able to capitalize monetarily in creative ways, talk to other kids from around the world and feel safer with mobile devices in case of emergencies.

However, during his 29 years with the Victoria police force, Laur has seen a rapidly rising rate of internet and social media transgressions and too many teens emotionally ill-equipped to cope with being victims.

Laur said that the biggest concern today is no longer about adult strangers communicating with and preying upon youth. The most common problems revolve around students harrassing and threatening other students and his concerns are centered around the victims’ psychological and emotional safety.

One of his biggest warnings he gave to students and parents in Oak Harbor was the potential dire consequences of inappropriate photos and messages that some teens are posting on their social media networks.

Laur said it’s the norm now for colleges and universities and prospective employers to look at an applicant’s social media pages, or what he calls their “digital dossier,” to help them make choices.

“You think any of this is private?” Laur said to the parent group before breaking into a sinister laugh.

“No matter what social network you’re using, no matter what app you’re using, no matter what your privacy settings, everything you do online is public, searchable, permanent, exploitable and for sale.

“There is no such thing as privacy. Privacy is a fallacy. And the sooner our kids understand this important rule, the safer we will all be.”

Steve King, assistant superintendent with Oak Harbor Public Schools, invited Laur and his wife to come to Oak Harbor based on his experiences with them two years ago when he was a principal at Mount Baker High School.

A student there had reached out to Laur for help and he relayed that to King, who was able to get help to the teen.

King said that about 80 to 90 percent of the behavioral issues at Oak Harbor High School are connected to some sort of social media or technology issue. He said that number is about 50 percent at the middle schools.

King found Laur’s two-hour presentation to be worth the investment because it provides knowledge that empowers kids to make good choices.

“We really need to make kids part of the solution,” King said.

Laur provided enough warnings, vernacular and tips to make a parent’s mind spin.

He spoke about students’ dependency on their digital devices, calling mobile devices such as smart phones the clear winner over desktop computers and laptops when it comes to accessing social networks.

He said he was concerned about how such devices are depriving students of sleep and potentially endangering their health and wellness, claiming beeps and buzzes that signal a new message interrupt sleep patterns and storing cell phones under pillows exposes kids to electromagnetic radio frequencies.

He recommends parents not allowing kids to have their digital devices in their bedrooms late at night and has a stock answer for parents when teens say they need the device to wake them up.

“Buy them an alarm clock,” Laur said.

“We need to be a kid’s best parent and not their best friend.”

Laur recommended ways for parents to monitor and control their teen’s internet use, suggesting monitoring software that will give a parent a report about what their child is accessing.

He suggests parents not be secretive about this but to make their teens fully aware that they need to verify that they are making good decisions when it comes to what he calls their “digital citizenship.”

He offered an endless stream of tips, tools and clues to help parents try to gain their footing on what for most of them is a foreign landscape in a world daunting and unfamiliar.

He called today’s teens “Generation Z, the first generation that is fully integrated in the online and offline world. They don’t see it as two separate worlds,” Laur added. “It’s one world. Therefore, we need to be a little more involved finding a balance with our kids so they’re not spending as much time online and doing other things.”

Teens in the U.S. spend on average about five hours a day on the internet and send about 126 text messages a day, Laur said.

Laur offered four steps for parents that emphasized supervision, opening up communication with their kids about technology, setting up boundaries for use and choosing certain software and making settings on computers for better protection.

“Have a digital dinner once a week,” Laur said. “Every Thursday night, talk about everything digital. Tell them, ‘I read about a new app everyone’s using now called Snapchat. What is it? Why is it so popular?’ You’ll be amazed at what you learn from them giving them that opportunity.”

Opening up communication with teens is the key, he said, and giving them the chance to prove they’re responsible enough to navigate the cyber world without frequent supervision. When they show that, reward them by lightening the restrictions, he said.

Laur said when trouble arises most from internet use, the most common scenario he sees involves teens having unsupervised access to the internet in their bedrooms, particularly at night. He said activity on social networks is alarmingly busy from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m., making it no wonder some teens are lacking sleep.

Getting the devices out of their bedroom late at night is an important first step.

Laur outlined many of the dark uses of the internet from predators “creeping” into teens’ social networks to gain personal information that is often too freely posted. 

He said criminal minds try to trick users by impersonating law enforcement through a popup message that claims they caught them downloading something illegally. 

To get out of trouble, the user is prompted to provide a credit card number. But when they do that, their computer freezes, leaving the user paralyzed, and they are told they need to pay money to unlock it.

Laur said there has been a huge increase in “ransomware” recently, adding that no real law enforcement agency in the U.S. or Canada that would make such a request.

“If this happens disconnect from the internet, turn off your wi-fi and take the computer into a computer store and have them wipe it and clean it,” Laur said. 

“Do not pay money to have this thing unlocked. Once you do it, they’ll go after you again and again and again.”

Laur also warned of spying software used by criminals known as RATs, short for Remote Administration Tool.

Using this software, strangers can hack into an unsuspecting person’s computer, gain control of the webcam and watch and record everything they see a user do, Laur said. They can even disable the green LED light so a user will have no idea they’re being recorded.

Laur suggests placing tape over the camera on desktops and laptops as a safeguard.

RATs can be stumbled upon by people who fall into a trap by clicking on to an intriguing video or link on their social media sites.

Software can be installed on computers to protect from RATs and ransomware, Laur said.

“I knew it could be done but I didn’t know how,” said Carolyn Krider, whose daughter is an 11th grader at Oak Harbor High School.

The area that is most disturbing to Laur is how teens are targeting others through cyber bullying or what he calls “digital peer aggression.”

Social networks allows gossip to travel quickly and be widespread, placing heavy pressure on teens who are not fully emotionally developed.

“I think it’s a social experiment,” said Nancy Diamond, office assistant at Oak Harbor Middle School. “They (students) aren’t ready for or are able to handle the pressures that come with this.”

Laur spoke of examples where teen relationships have ended and, out of spite, inappropriate photos have been shared with others, and ultimately, for the world to see on the web.

“I hate calling it bullying,” Laur said. “We call it assault, a hate crime or intimidation. It is violence. It’s not funny and it’s causing people in my country and your country to consider self harm or suicide as an option.”

Laur pointed to Amanda Todd, a Vancouver, B.C.-area teen who took her life in 2012 after she was the target of online harrassment.

Todd was a victim of online extortion in which a photo that she regreted having taken was circulated widely on the web after she failed to comply with a stranger’s requests in front of a webcam.

Laur said one out of every four secondary school students in the U.S. is targeted by some form of digital peer aggression.

His presentation before students, parents and eductators opened some eyes.

His messages emphasized how everything online can become permanent and publicly viewed, including Snapchat images that are supposed to dissolve in a matter of seconds.

An app can allow one who receives such a message to copy it immediately before it disappears.

“I didn’t think it would be very interesting,” said Sierra Guy, an eighth grader who attended the presentation at Oak Harbor Middle School. “It really was.”

“I think it shows how critical is it to make sure you have open communication with your children about internet safety and really looking at our own security online and our children’s security online and putting some of these measures in place,” said Kathleen Pendleton, whose son attends middle school.

About 100 people showed up for the parent presentation, which was a pleasant surprise to Laur.

He said he’s gone to a school of 1,600 where three parents showed up.

“Parents are the keystone. They really are,” Laur said. “The schools have a part to play. They do. But the parents have a bigger part to play because if the schools are teaching something and the parents aren’t compounding the message, it’s no wonder that kids are doing something they shouldn’t be doing.”

To learn more about Laur’s internet and social media safety program, go to www.personalprotectionsystems.ca.


                     © Personal Protection Systems Inc 2014