Community safety coalition holds town hall
In a world where nearly every teenager, preteen and even younger children have their own smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices, what can parents do to keep their kids safe? Two local law enforcement officers spoke to a couple dozen community members about how they can monitor their children’s online activity during a town hall meeting hosted by the Fort Dodge – Webster County Safe Communities Coalition at First Presbyterian Church on Thursday evening.
“There’s a lot of danger out there on these devices,” said Randy Kuhlman, CEO of the Fort Dodge Community Foundation and United Way.
Detective Alex Winninger, of the Webster County Sheriff’s Office, and Detective Joelyn Johnson, of the Fort Dodge Police Department, spoke about the common offenses they see from electronic communication. Both detectives work in the county’s cyber crimes unit.
“We have the internet at our fingertips almost every single day — I see kids as young as 5 years old operating cell phones very fluidly,” Johnson said. “So it’s very important that they understand the respect and responsibility that comes with being able to utilize that tool.”
It’s also important for parents to understand the responsibility that comes with monitoring their child’s devices, she added.
“A lot of times, parents will not even understand that their child might be engaging in some pretty risky behavior on the internet,” Johnson said.
Two of the most common things officers find teens participating in are sexting and cyberbullying.
Johnson said it’s not uncommon for a teen to send risque photos to their significant other, for example.
What teens don’t understand is that sending any obscene material to a minor is a crime, even if the sender is also a minor. So even if a teen took an inappropriate photo of themselves and sent it to another person, that’s still dissemination of child pornography, which is a federal offense, Johnson explained.
“Kids don’t see how this is going to impact their life in the long run,” she said.
The officers also discussed cyberbullying and how that, too, can lead to criminal charges, including harassment.
“The big take aways that we want you guys to know, know your kids’ pass codes — you’re paying for these phones,” Winninger said. “Randomly check their phones, and if they don’t like it just take the phone away.”
He noted that there are a lot of smartphone apps that teens will use to hide text conversations, so if the phone’s regular messaging app doesn’t have much in it, they’re likely using another app to communicate with others.
“That’s another red flag to look for,” Winninger said.
There are plenty of apps out there that can help parents monitor their child’s electronic activity, he said.
The meeting wrapped up with some information about the Neighborhood Watch program that the safety coalition is reviving in the community. Through the FDPD, it will be school resource and community relations officers Matt Meyer and Matthew Weir who head up the program.
The Fort Dodge – Webster County Safe Communities Coalition was created recently, but Kuhlman said they plan to have more town hall-type meetings to educate the community about various public safety concerns.
“When we started the safety coalition, the sheriff’s department and police department were very enthusiastic to work with us,” Kuhlman said.