Recent studies show that one in seven youngsters has experienced unwanted sexual solicitations online. One in three has been exposed to unwanted sexual material online. One in 11 has been harassed or bullied online.
And as we all know, these are only some of the dangers that our kids face while surfing the Internet. How can we simultaneously protect them from these threats and enable them to take advantage of the positive things the web has to offer?
In addition to investigating online crimes targeting children, the FBI works to educate kids and their parents about the Internet -- sometimes sending cyber agents to visit schools as well as posting useful resources on our public website. The bureau also offers its Safe Online Surfing (SOS) program to schools to help students understand how to recognize, report, and avoid online dangers.
The SOS program began in the bureau's Miami office six years ago, when Special Agent Jim Lewis -- who saw first-hand how easily kids could be victimized online -- approached Community Outreach Specialist Jeff Green, about his desire to share information about Internet safety with school students.
The Miami office turned to nearby Nova Southeastern University for assistance with creating an online Internet safety program that that also tested students on what they learned. About 400 South Florida students took part initially, and according to Green, feedback from students and teachers was positive. “Kids are surfing the Internet anyway," he said, "so we were just using a vehicle they were comfortable with.”
Spreading the word
Over the years, other FBI field offices began offering the SOS program with the help of their community outreach specialists. By October 2010, the Cyber Division at FBI Headquarters -- which manages the Innocent Images National Initiative, focused on online child predators -- took the SOS program under its wing and made it a national one. Today, more than 90,000 children in 41 states have completed it.
Innocent Images is an FBI intelligence-driven, proactive, multiagency investigative operation focused on combating the proliferation of child pornography/child sexual exploitation facilitated by computers. It also includes an international task force representing more than 40 countries that helps address the problem globally.
The program has grown tremendously between fiscal years 1996 and 2009:
- 2,435 percent increase in cases opened (113 to 2,865)
- 1,171 percent increase in informations/indictments (99 to 1,159)
- 3,421 increase in arrests, locates, & summons (68 to 2,326)
- 1,832 percent increase in convictions/pretrial diversions (68 to 1,246)
From fiscal year 1996 to 2009, Innocent Images has recorded a total of:
- 25,727 opened cases
- 8,958 informations/indictments
- 14,537 arrests, locates, and summons
- 9,054 convictions/pretrial diversion
How it works
At each grade level -- third through eighth -- students begin by taking pre-quizzes to test their overall knowledge. Then, a scavenger hunt takes them to pre-screened websites where they get Internet safety and cyber citizenship information. And finally, they take timed post-quizzes to demonstrate what they’ve learned.
The program also promotes a fun competition between schools: every month – from September through May -- schools with the highest scoring students in the nation are awarded the FBI-SOS Trophy.
Topics covered in the program run the cyber gamut: depending on the age of the students, they might learn about password security, cyberbullying, virus protection, copyright issues, online predators, e-mail, chat rooms, social networking sites, when to talk to parents or teachers about a threat, and appropriate uses of cell phones and gaming devices.
Of the SOS program, Cyber Division Assistant Director Gordon Snow said, “The Internet is a powerful resource for our youth, but it also presents opportunities for those who would attempt to do them harm…the Safe Online Surfing program is designed to teach young people what they need to know to avoid falling victim to individuals who want to take advantage of their youth and innocence.”
Schools interested in signing up for the Safe Online Surfing program should contact the community outreach specialist in their local FBI office.