By Michael Hollingshead
SALT LAKE CITY – Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff announced Friday March 7 at the Utah Coalition for Educational Technology Conference that Utah is the first state to adopt into school curriculum a new tool for protecting children from inappropriate content on the Internet.
The tool, Netsmartz, is a user-friendly animated children”s workshop that educates children about sex solicitors and other dangers on the Internet through a series of games, exercises and activities.
“We”re very excited about it – it”s going to be amazing,” Shurtleff said. “The best way to protect our children is education.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Boys & Girls Clubs of America worked together to develop the program for three years. Rick Minicucci, chief technology officer for NCMEC, said the classroom is the ideal setting for Netsmartz because it educates and entertains.
“You should be pretty proud of your state and your attorney general,” Minicucci said. “This is the first time Netsmartz has ever done anything statewide.”
In August 2002, the Netsmartz program was distributed to nearly 3,000 Boys & Girls Clubs across America. It was launched to the public in January and is now working to protect over 3 million children, Minicucci said.
The program is aimed at educating children and reducing incidents with online victimization.
According to one study of online victimization, one in five children were sexually solicited or approached over the Internet in 1999. One in 33 of those children received an aggressive sexual solicitation wherein the solicitor asked them to meet, called them or sent them regular mail and gifts.
“It”s going to take the state to make sure this gets out to everyone,” Shurtleff said. “The program will go into every house, school and computer. It will teach the kids online how to be safe on the Internet.”
Shurtleff supervises the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force that arrested 14 sex solicitors this year. The same task force arrested over one hundred offenders in the last 2.5 years and took down three major child pornography sites.
“The real heroes are the people on this task force; these guys are making two arrests a week,” Minicucci said. “We couldn”t be working with better people.”
Kathy Free, program manager for NCMEC has worked closely with Minicucci since March 1998 to help develop Netsmartz and to monitor inappropriate material on the Internet.
“In five years we”ve received more than 110,000 leads from the public and Internet servers regarding inappropriate content or child pornography,” Free said. “About 70 percent of the reports are from the public-usually in regard to child pornography. We pass that information on to federal offices who deal with it.”
Viewpoint, a company with offices in Salt Lake and credited in the films “Antz” and “Godzilla,” created the animation for the workshop. The program features 3-D characters named “Clicky,” “Webster” and “Nettie” who guide children through the activities.
Minicucci stirred conversations in the audience when he demonstrated one exercise from the Netsmartz workshop called “Who”s Your Friend on the Internet?”
In the exercise, Webster and Nettie walk children through a game show situation where three characters talk behind three curtains. Children choose a friend based on the voices they hear-two are friendly, one is not. Children find that all three curtains reveal a bad character named “Fiona the Follower.” The exercise teaches children that anyone on the Internet could be dangerous.
Vicky Dahn, director of curriculum and educational technology of the Utah State Office of Education, has worked with Minicucci and Shurtleff to institute the program in Utah.
“No child is safe. No parent would throw their child in a bedroom full of sharks,” Dahn said. “You never know. There are more sharks than there are nice little fish swimming in those chat rooms.”
Dahn said the office of education went as far as trying to make their own protection system before they found Netsmartz.
“When this one came out, we were immediately enamored with it,” Dahn said. “We were just surfing on the Internet and came across it. After that, it just snowballed. Things came together very quickly.”
Dahn said she has seen more poignantly the problems that can come with the Internet since a sex solicitor pursued her 16-year-old niece.
“Parents can”t wait for this to come to them,” Dahn said “They need to set cold hard rules about the Internet, especially chat rooms. If that doesn”t work, then they need to get rid of the chat rooms all together.”
Amie Sisam, a computer specialist at Snow Springs Elementary in Lehi where Netsmartz is being piloted, said 85 percent of her students are online everyday.
“Children as young as my fourth and fifth graders are using chat rooms,” Sisam said. “Children are so trusting by their nature, they need to be careful.”
Shurtleff is set to speak at a national convention for attorney generals later this year to encourage nationwide use of the program.
Netsmartz can be accessed at www.netsmartz.org.