Kids “more at risk” from gaming devices than computers

Even the Incredible Hulk is scanning his files for viruses.

The Symantec Connected & Protected Family Safety Tour – which made its way to Ontario Place and the Canadian National Exhibition last week – had one well defined mission: to help educate families on how to stay safe online.

The tour, under the banner of the Incredible Hulk, kicked off at the beginning of the summer, but the Norton 360 truck has been on the road for three years, in partnership with the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, spreading its message of online safety across North America at schools, events and retailers.

The 68-foot truck was designed to present issues around online safety – to kids, teens and parents. Inside the truck, seven PC stations are set up to highlight different aspects of online safety, from identity protection to parental controls. It also has a gaming station where kids can play Guitar Hero – but it’s not all about fun and games.

“Kids are more at risk in front of gaming devices,” said Mickey Richardson, tour lead for the Norton 360 truck.

Gaming devices have hard drives, voice over IP and, in the case of Nintendo Wii, even text-messaging. Kids are not only distracted while they’re gaming, but they’re more likely to feel a certain comfort level with other players (whose avatars can be designed to look like, say, a 13-year-old boy, instead of a grown adult). But parents don’t often consider gaming devices to be computers.

But hackers have caught on.

Gaming devices are now being hacked into; we’re even seeing avatars being sold on eBay, thanks to the popularity of certain games. And this can lead to a host of problems – from identity theft to cyber-stalking to child exploitation.

The tour is meant to teach kids about what constitutes personal information – and how to keep it that way.

Because school is a public place, for example, many kids don’t consider the name of their school as personal information, said Richardson.

But at one school in Las Vegas, however, the truck drew huge crowds, as a girl had recently been abducted while walking to school. Prior to the abduction, she had been in a chat room, where she discussed what school she went to and how she got there.

Worst-case scenarios include cyber-stalking and child exploitation.

And, thanks to the Internet, sex abuse images can be circulated for years, said Bob Rodeghiero, detective constable with the Toronto Police Service’s sex crimes unit (child exploitation section).

He said a child victimized at five or six years of age may still find photos circulating on the Internet years later. “So they’re victimized over and over again.”

Unfortunately, in some cases, kids are actively participating in this, without realizing the consequences of their actions.

A young girl takes racy photos and sends them to her boyfriend, for example. Then they break up and, next thing you know, the photos are printed and posted in a locker – or, even worse, distributed all over the Internet. Or, negative comments are posted on social networking sites, or sites dedicated to such things, such as

As part of his job, Rodeghiero poses as a young girl to lure sexual predators in chat rooms. Some predators lie about who they are, but some don’t even bother to hide the fact they’re a 40-year-old man – some young girls think it’s “cool” to get attention in this way. In almost all cases, “he’ll show up to meet me,” he said. Web cams are just a bad idea, he added, since there are plenty of tools that can capture live video.

But in many cases, when kids are uncomfortable with something that happened online, they just close the screen – they don’t tell an adult. “When they’re online, kids aren’t always sure where the boundaries are,” said Richardson, and predators are always looking for the weakest link.

This also applies to cyber-bullying. With traditional bullying on the playground, it was typically one against one. With cyber-bullying, however, it’s one against many. It spreads rapidly and it’s typically harsher, since it can be more anonymous.

The problem, however, is that parents can’t safeguard their kids around the clock. Even if the family PC is in the living room, with parental controls, a kid can still take photos with a cell phone backwards in a mirror and upload them to a social networking site.

“You can’t follow your kids everywhere,” said Rodeghiero. “They can take a photo in the bathroom if they really want to.” So it comes down to communication – and teaching kids the appropriate skills to stay safe online.

Kids often don’t understand that once that content is out there, they can’t control that content anymore, said Lynn Hargrove, director of consumer solutions with Symantec Canada. If a girl sends private messages or photos to her best friend, and then her best friend becomes her worst enemy, she can’t take those messages or photos back.

That’s why the Connected & Protected Family Safety Tour is also aimed at parents, who need to understand not only the threats, but also how to have that conversation with their kids. “We’re teaching parents there’s responsibility along with the Internet,” she said. And that conversation gets harder when they’re teenagers, she added, so the sooner parents start, the better.

The Norton 360 truck also provides parents with a software demo of Symantec’s security suite to help protect against identity theft, phishing and other malicious attacks. “You can buy a complete ID for under $10 right now [on the black market],” said Hargrove. Parents can also learn how to set up parental controls, such as black and white lists.

But education is critical, because despite those parental controls, kids can still go online at a friend’s house, at an Internet café, over their cell phone or over a gaming console.

If parents don’t understand social networking sites, such as Facebook, they should set up an account, so they know how to talk to their kids about it. Some items that parents could discuss with their kids include: what their friends are doing online, what the coolest and newest Web sites are, and if they’ve seen cyber-bullying or anything else that made them uncomfortable online.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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