Homer police tour Alaska urging parents to talk with kids about online safety

a cellphone
(Wikimedia Commons)

Content note: This story contains references to sexual abuse and suicide.  

The Homer Police Department is hosting a series of presentations for parents this spring to raise awareness about youth safety and etiquette online — from preventing sexual exploitation to stalking and cyberbullying.

“I have one goal with all of this, and that is for you to talk to your kids openly, honestly and often,” said Lt. Ryan Browning, who is leading the series called “Parenting in the Digital Age.” “This cannot be a conversation where we give our kid a cell phone or a tablet or device and we say, ‘Hey, good luck to you. Don’t be an idiot,’ right?”

A recent event at the Homer Public Library drew a few dozen parents for Browning’s two-hour presentation, which included research, discussion, videos, poetry and plenty of humor.

“When you and I were kids, the people that influenced our lives were school, church, family, friends, your neighborhood kids, or where you could ride your bike to, right?,” Browning said. “Nowadays, our kids have connections worldwide, in the blink of an eye or a touch of a button. Many of you may not know who’s influenced your kids, and who they are talking to. And none of that is more true when we deal with cases involving social media and the internet.”

Browning — a father to teens himself – is bringing the discussion to schools and community centers to help parents and kids understand and talk about social media, online privacy and etiquette, signs of abuse or exploitation, and to share resources.

“Good kids make poor decisions. They do stupid things. And that doesn’t mean they’re a bad kid,” he said. “This stuff happens to good kids and good families.”

Browning said the campaign was prompted by recent disturbing cases on the Kenai Peninsula: Earlier this year, a Homer man was arrested for sexual abuse, online enticement and child pornography for exchanging sexually explicit photos with several teenage girls. Soon after, Browning was called to respond to a youth suicide attempt.

“We had a young lady in town who basically had sent her final text, and didn’t want to live anymore. In responding to that call and dealing with her and finding out some of the stuff that got her to that point was a catalyst for me,” he said. “I knew that somebody needs to start somewhere, having this conversation and talking to parents and kids about what their kids are experiencing online.”

At the library, Browning flashed headlines of cases of child abuse, child pornography and exploitation around the Kenai Peninsula over the last decade. He said last year in Homer alone, the police department received reports of 18 sexual assaults and four stalking cases.

“Right now, we have 33 kids who are victims of sexual assault — 33 active cases,” he said. “That is more people than are in this room right now. Telling me this doesn’t happen in Homer? It does.”

Browning emphasized Alaska is in a statewide sexual assault and exloitation crisis and parents must step up to intervene and protect children and youth.

That means parents need to confront what can sometimes be their worst fears: Talking openly about “stranger danger,” or sex and relationships with their kids.

“These are not easy topics to talk about, especially with your kid. But we’ve got to do it,” Browning said.

He said he’s seen photos and messages be used as blackmail and extortion, and so discussing online privacy and reputation is important.

“If we can teach our kids, and just drill into their little melons that everything is public and permanent,” he said. “Everything they do online, everything they do on social media, everything they do on their cell phones, somebody might see at some point. Because once you press send, it’s not coming back.”

Browning discussed the ways youth connect and share online via phones, tablets, gaming and social media — most popularly on Instagram and Snapchat. But rather than a technical rundown on apps or software, he said it’s about teaching kids appropriate behavior online and recognizing the risks.

He cited data on the addictive nature of social media algorithms, including research showing adolescents are particularly vulnerable to be influenced by what they’re seeing — especially on Instagram — and to experience negative impacts to their mental health.

“Internal documents from Meta or Facebook’s parent company, showed young people are acutely aware that Instagram can be bad for their mental health,” Browning said. “Yet they’re still compelled to spend time in the app for fear of missing out on cultural and social trends.”

Those revelations in 2021 prompted hearings on Capitol Hill and inquiries by state attorneys general nationwide.

“There’s people that make millions of dollars that share this little tiny bit of their perfect life,” Browning said. “And that’s what our kids think is real.”

Browning cited data showing rising rates of hopelessness, depression and suicide among teens, which have increased during the pandemic. Also rates of sexual violence, abuse and cyberbullying.

He said parents should be aware of signs: Notice increased time spent online, concealing behavior or device use, withdrawing, not sleeping well, and especially notice if their kids are intensely angry or upset if their phone is taken away. Browning urged parents not to allow kids to take their phones to bed with them.

For perpetrators of online extortion, bullying or abuse, Browning said it’s about power, and targeting the young and vulnerable.

“One hundred percent, it’s ‘I’m going to get you to do this,’ or ‘I’m going to send your friends this,’ or ‘You’re going to give me money,’” Browning said. “It’s using somebody for means to an end.”

Browning said while there are state anti-harassment laws, there’s no anti-bullying law in Alaska. But there are some protections and consequences under local school districts.

Homer parents Joe and Summer, who attended the Homer Library event, said their two kids are still young but they found the event informative, and recommend it for parents.

“I grew up in Homer, and Alaska has always had a problem with [sexual abuse], even before it went online,” Joe said. “And now it’s that much worse that there’s the online component. So yeah anyone with kids could benefit from it for sure.”

Browning encouraged parents to look at online safety resources like Netsmartz and the Internet Watch Foundation, and to report abusive behavior to social media companies like Meta. He said the Homer Police Department will investigate tips of sexual extortion or online predatory behavior.

For mental health support, 988 is a nation-wide suicide and crisis support line staffed 24/7 and can connect those struggling to state resources. Locally, South Peninsula Hospital in Homer provides mental health care and resources.

Most importantly, Browning urged parents to begin the conversation.

“Take that deep breath, sit down next to them, and then just start,” he said. “You will be amazed at what your kids will share with you if you’re willing to listen.”

Browning is planning to take the “Parenting in the Digital Age” presentation to schools and community centers around the state. He’ll be presenting at 6:30 p.m. on March 23 at Nikiski High School, at 6 p.m. on March 25 at Soldotna High School, and 6 p.m. on March 29 at Kenai Central High School.

For the full schedule of events, check the Homer Police Department Facebook page.

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