Scott Frank calls it “The Power of One.”
It’s the single, reckless message a young person can send over the Internet that may seem harmless but can haunt and damage them for years, or even over their lifetime. And it leads to the hard lesson that pressing “delete” after sending it doesn’t prevent that message from floating around the digital world in perpetuity.
Frank, a motivational speaker and founder of the Digital Empowerment Project (DEP), spent an hour last Thursday speaking to Wauseon Middle School fifth and sixth grade students gathered in the school cafetorium about their online communication and its hidden dangers. He spoke later to seventh and eighth grade students, and held an adult session in the evening for the school district’s parents.
Now retired following 36 years in law enforcement, the father of six was also an investigator of Internet crimes against children from 2004-17 for the sheriffs’ departments of Ottawa and Wood counties. His experience includes time as a D.A.R.E. resource officer and posing as a child online to trap predators.
Since forming DEP in 2017, Frank has spoken to 35,000 students nationwide about the pitfalls of online use.
Citing a statistic that young people send 1.5 billion messages on the Internet every 60 seconds, Frank told the Wauseon Middle School students, “It takes one message to impact your future and change your life.”
He also noted that 25 percent of people’s profiles found on social media are fake, and warned the students that online predators know what things to say to attract curious youths. “They are not who you think they are,” Frank said.
“Some of you in this very room…you’re already talking to somebody (online),” and keeping the conversations a secret, he said. He warned the students those online friends may well be predators who will lie and play on their emotions to get what they want.
Frank told them about a predator who was tracked down and arrested after developing an online relationship with a law enforcement officer posing as a 12-year-old boy. They found the man in his basement perusing 12 laptops that collectively held the nude images of thousands of students, from elementary school through high school.
He described several cases he handled in which impressionable young people were duped by online strangers and suffered painful consequences. They included “Emma,” a sixth grade student who disappeared after meeting a man she met online; and “Kyle,” who shared personal information about himself and his parents with a man who posed as a girl online and who subsequently stole all their identities.
In particular, Frank centered on “Kate,” who was lured into an online relationship with a man who learned everything about her and eventually requested a nude photo. She reluctantly complied, then faced the nightmare of him posting the image all over the Internet after she broke up with him.
In a taped message Frank played for the students, “Kate” said she was attracted to what the man said and to the photo he provided. “I learned people aren’t always what they seem to be in the digital world,” she said.
Frank advised the students that their computer’s “delete” button does not permanently erase their messages. He said those messages remain in the digital world, and computer-savvy people can easily retrieve them and exploit them for years afterward.
“Be cautious of the silly, immature stuff (you send), because it could be with you for a long, long time,” he said.
He told the students the computer apps they use can also be deceitful. He said many people don’t realize the apps promote anonymity and use military grade encrypted code. Accepting use of an app – even one as seemingly innocuous as a flashlight on a cell phone – can give the provider access to the user’s computer storage, their location, and their telephone calls.
Some apps, such as Snapchat, employ “game-ification,” a term describing enticements the apps offer youths to keep them interested and attached, Frank said. In the meantime, “they’re doing anything they want to do with your photos and messages.”
He also warned the students that time on the Internet has likely resulted in a “Google You” profile developed by the search engine. “‘Google You’ doesn’t forget, doesn’t forgive, and is always searching for you,” he said.
Frank encouraged the students to trust and confide in an adult if they have developed an online problem or if they’re experiencing peer pressure to send inappropriate messages. He also encouraged them to use the Internet in good ways that will help others.
“Slow down. Make sure that you’re kind and you’re positive. You need to put your best foot forward,” he said. “You’re going to change the world…because you took the positive part of the digital world.”
Middle school principal Joe Friess said Thursday’s session was held because the safety of their children is on every parent’s mind.
“The pace of technology is kind of ahead of us,” he said. “We just need to help parents, and we want to make this a more positive environment.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.