Family Safety Expert Shares
Secrets of the Digital World

“What do you want the world to see?

Cathie Bledsoe is uniquely passionate about digital safety, and she has years of experience and research to back her up. With seven years working for the state police through a grant and additional time spent freelancing with her digital safety talks, Bledsoe has dedicated her career to equipping families to stay safe online. She gave around 400 talks a year in 30-50 counties during her time with the state police, by far exceeding her minimum requirement.

Throughout her career, Bledsoe has presented to students, educators, adults, law enforcement, the department of child services, foster care, and churches. Her digital safety expertise was relevant to every audience and still is. Bledsoe found that grandparents needed to know what they should be concerned about as they hosted their grandkids, who would often spend time on devices. She also reports realizing that adults often benefit from hearing the same warnings she gives to kids regarding tech safety.

We had a conversation with Cathie Bledsoe about the secrets of the digital world and how to keep your family safe online. Enjoy her expertise, and let us know what you want to hear more about from internet experts: @KosciuskoConnect.

What first made you interested in internet safety?

Cathie Bledsoe: Children, honestly. I was a teacher, and I had seen several students get into some unnecessary trouble using their digital devices. I’m originally from St. Louis, and when I lived there, I worked at a college that had me teach technology to retired teachers because it was so new and foreign to them. When I moved to Fort Wayne, I was a computer teacher, and I volunteered at the Girl Scouts. As technology blew up, I saw that kids were on this digital playground with no supervision, so I decided someone should do something about it.

I used to take my students to internet safety talks, and they were so fluffy. It bothered me that people were afraid to tell kids what is dangerous. Or they would say not to do something, and so kids would automatically want to do it.

A lot of times, when people did a digital safety talk, they would say, “Snapchat is invasive,” but they wouldn’t tell you why. Or they would say, “Don’t put photos online,” but they wouldn’t go the next step to say, “Embedded in your photo is latitude, longitude, altitude, IP address, cell phone number, make and model of your device, front or back camera.” Something as simple as the make and model of a child’s phone can give you an idea of their financial situation. If a kid has the latest phone, they probably have some money, and that makes them more of a blackmail target. The wording is very important. We need to start talking about technology as it is and helping kids understand that.

What do parents and other concerned adults typically need to hear the most about staying safe online?

CB: When there are adults at my talks, I ask women to stop using their first name, middle name, maiden name, and last name online. If a child predator is watching, you made it so they can get to your nieces and nephews because they have your maiden name and your children. And they can pretend to be someone from the family because they have enough information to make a fake relative.

People seem to forget this technology is designed to connect us. Predators can get to your account and everyone you know through it. Then they can use the information that you freely share.

What many people don’t understand is that most programs teach “beware of strangers,” but 90% of the harm kids experience comes from someone they know, and 47% of that comes from other kids. There are stories of predators finding kids from other states, but I’ve also had people tell me their kids are being groomed by older siblings, relatives, or kids in the neighborhood. I want to encourage some of the kids who are predators to think before they target their friends. It’s not a joke or a game, it can be very damaging, and there are laws against what they’re doing online.

Inappropriate pictures of children are a felony. There are efforts being made to change the law’s wording to “CSAM” because there is no age of consent and people need to understand what’s illegal.

Learn more about the bill to change legislative wording to CSAM.

Read about Child Rescue Coalition efforts.

Hands typing on keyboard at night

How has the continual evolution of technology influenced our understanding of online safety?

CB: When computers first came out, everybody had a computer safety class. But then we gave you a tablet, a game system, a phone, and a smartwatch, and you forgot that they’re all the same thing in different shapes and sizes. They’re always collecting and processing information, which is saved to servers all over the world and you have no idea who has access to it.

When kids can see the big picture, it helps them rethink what they’re doing. An app is software, and software comes with a legal, binding contract. Children under 18 aren’t supposed to install it without their parents’ permission. Parents often look at an app and say, “It says it’s for kids over 13,” and their child is nine years old. They shouldn’t be on it. It doesn’t matter if the game says it’s for 13 and up. The only reason it says that is because of laws that tell the developers what they can and cannot do with the personal information of children under 12.

Everything is growing and changing all the time.

My grant with the state police ended in September, and we were already getting reports of organized crime targeting boys and trying to blackmail them for money. There have been many cases of suicide because of it. Preying on kids online is a career for some people. People don’t recognize that.

Everyone thinks they’re so smart to uncover a scam, but the smart thing is to not get caught up in it to begin with. Any communication is giving out your location, proving that your information is valid, and if the right software is running, they might be able to get your phone number.

What are the other common themes that you’ve seen internet safety talks getting wrong?

CB: They keep saying that gaming sites are a new playground for predators. But from the beginning of having chats in gaming apps, predators were targeting gamers. I’m a gamer, and my brothers are gamers, and we were always targeted online. It’s easier for them now, and they can target kids 24 hours a day.

When devices first came out, parents were told, “Don’t let your kids take their device into the bedroom,” but it’s portable. They take them into bedrooms, bathrooms, and everywhere they go.

A game where you can chat with someone is social media with a game. Social media means public broadcasting. When you’re gaming, you’re public broadcasting your activities and everything you say and do. I’ve had parents say, “I only let them play with people they know,” and, “they only chat with their friends,” but in the game world, it’s not a private chat. You’re talking, and everyone can read it no matter what you say. Some people are lurkers, just trying to get information. They can get your username, your location, and other information that will let them find you somewhere else like social media or even in the real world.

Only playing with people you know isn’t possible anymore. For most games, to level up you need a guild or a team. Even one-on-one games can find your friends so you can share with them. It’s the games that allow kids to chat with text and microphone, or stream video that are especially risky.

Some parents tell their kids to play in a room where they can see the screen, but most kids are using a headset, so you’re only hearing one side of the conversation. Most parents don’t know social media speak and don’t have time to monitor a child’s screen all the time.

Further reading:

The dangers of video game chat rooms.

Social media slang parents should know.

What kinds of rules and guidelines should parents enforce to keep their kids safe online?

CB: These are the two worst things I’ve had parents tell me: “I’m too old to learn this,” and, “I don’t want my kids to be mad at me.” From the minute you give your kids technology, you should be able to start talking to them about what you expect, the consequences, and how it can impact their lives and the lives of their families.

When you’re online, and you live in my house, you have given 99 apps permission to see my network, which means they can see my devices. We give away a lot of information just by having our devices in any location.

I’m not trying to scare kids off from technology, but it’s too late for us to do anything about that. Since we must use this technology, I will always ask kids, “What do you want the world to see?” That’s what you can control. When you get on a software, you’ve given away your rights, but it makes sense because it’s their software, not ours.

The real product of this technology is us.

Fortnite is free, but it makes billions of dollars. They’re not making it off you playing the game. They’re selling the fact that you’re a nine-year-old kid in Southwest Allen County who attends Dear Ridge Elementary. They know you sit on that device for 12 hours, and for part of that 12 hours you’re the only person in the house. They can tell because you’re on the software that’s connected to the internet.

All this stuff is collected from your device and, depending on the kind of service, given to every other app on your device.

Kids will say, “The government’s watching us,” and I’ll say, “Why do they have to?” For the state police to watch you, they would need a court order. But you checked the box and gave Snapchat the right to track you and access your camera and microphone. You can’t say it’s a violation of your privacy because you checked the box. You made it easy.

Teenager texting while mom is on laptop

Obviously, online predators and hackers can hang out anywhere, but where are some of the hotspots for criminal online activity?

CB: Let’s talk about Kik. Kik was originally Canadian-based, so they didn’t have to modify and control the information that came in from other countries. They didn’t block grown people from asking kids their phone numbers like they might have to do in other countries, because the US has a very open internet with very few laws regarding internet use. If there was a predator out there, we knew they were using Kik. Now, it’s TikTok.

Predators love to go to Roblox, which is for seven and up. It’s a gateway app, and always listed on my top 5 dangerous apps. Only recently were they able to incorporate settings to control cussing and other conversations.

People often ask me what’s safe and what’s dangerous, but it’s about how they use it. How did you train your kids to behave when they’re on that app? Taking them off it probably means they’re going to do it somewhere else.

I’ve heard kids say they don’t have internet access at home, but they have internet at school, and in public spaces with free Wi-Fi. They don’t need to have internet at home. There are too many ways to access content, chat with friends and strangers, and behave any way they want to.

This all feels pretty overwhelming. How are parents supposed to protect their kids online when there’s so much access to vulnerable tech everywhere you turn?

CB: When I do a talk, usually people are sitting there going, “I don’t know what to do now.” The thing to do is to teach your kids. When you’re talking to your child about internet safety, stop saying it’s internet safety. It’s family safety. If someone can access me, they can access everyone in the family. When my teenager got her device, and I wanted to be able to track where she was at, I allowed her access to track me, too. Because if something happens to me, that affects her life and her future. It helps keep us all safe.

I always advise parents to update their security settings at least every three months. My brother-in-law works in security for schools and businesses, and he suggests we do a factory reset on our phones every year. It helps get rid of malware, tracking information, and cookies. You don’t have to be tech-savvy to do this. Google can tell you how to do anything.

What can parents do to train their kids to behave safely online?

CB: Parents, you are legally and financially responsible for the actions of any child who has a device and was under 18 at the time they got the device. You should be in their online world just like you’re in their real world because their online world is their real world. It’s just another way to communicate. Just like how making a phone call and writing a letter are both real connections. We judge people by their actions, and their actions online are sometimes a good way to find out what’s really going on.

Mom and child looking at laptop together

How can a parent be realistically involved in their child’s digital activities?

CB: One of the best things a parent can do is have an active presence in their child’s online world, just like they would watch sports practice or go to the movie theater with them. It doesn’t mean you’re a helicopter parent. This is my investment. I risked a lot for this child, and I want to make sure they get to adulthood safely.

My husband isn’t into gaming, but I game with my kids. My husband comes in from work, and because we keep our devices in a common family space, he comes in and asks what we’re doing. He’ll say, “Oh, you need that shiny sparkly thing at the top,” or, “Who’s Joe75?” It shows my kid that he cares for him as much as he does for my kid who’s into sports. A lot of parents skip that, so the kids who are into online gaming are left out in the wild by themselves. I think that has something to do with why we’re having so many mental health crises with kids. We put them out in the online world, and we’re not there with them. They don’t feel like we understand, we get them, or we’re supportive.

At the end of the day, sometimes we all come home, and it’s been a horrible day. Sharing interests with your kids makes them feel like when things are bad, they have someone to go to. With gaming, it can be a safe place to talk. We go from talking about the game to talking about our day in a safe environment where we can listen to each other.

And yes, you’re giving information to the game, but you gave out information when you walked into a grocery store, too. So, I’m not going to sweat that because it’s more important to pick and choose what the world sees.

That’s my big question for kids: What do you want the world to see?

I want them to see that we aren’t perfect, but we’re family trying. And my kids are not by themselves. They are covered and protected. Technology should be a way to keep our eyes open together. Our method may not work for everyone, but there’s a method that will work for your family.

What about kids who love posting videos on TikTok or Instagram? How can parents help keep them safe?

CB: I have a little cousin and I told her mom, “When she makes a TikTok video, I want to see you in it. I don’t care if you’re just standing to the side clapping, because that parent's presence means she’s a hard target.” She also includes her grandma. It shows she’s not alone, and it encourages her to not post things that would be embarrassing to grandma or mom.

With my own kids, I played every single game they play. Now, we have similar digital habits because I set myself up as a role model for them. Kids always feel like we don’t listen, and this gives us a place to come together, and have a little competition. It helps them better deal with the world. It’s just being there – just presence. We don’t have to be the greatest in the world. In fact, kids love it when we mess up because they can tease us. Be a good loser or be a good winner but be there.

Headshot of Cathie Bledsoe

Cathie Bledsoe, photo provided