"How many of you guys know more about computers than your parents?" Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler asked a gathering of fourth-graders at Waverly Elementary School in Ellicott City.
Nearly every hand shot up.
Gansler, whose children are 10 and 12, sees firsthand that youngsters today spend a lot of time on computers. But the Internet, he said, is like Halloween - a lot of fun, but also a little scary.
At Waverly, he introduced a statewide program intended to educate children about potential online dangers, including sexual predators and identity theft. "It's stupid for us not to teach kids about the dangers," he said. "There's a real underbelly to the Internet."
The program, called CLICKS - Community Leadership In Cyber Knowledge and Safety - was presented Thursday by Gansler, with state and local officials on hand to voice support, including state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Howard County schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.
For CLICKS, the state has partnered with NetSmartz, a nonprofit organization created by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Boys and Girls Clubs of America, which provides educational material about Internet dangers for students and educators.
Laurie Nathan, the lead outreach coordinator, explained that the organization provides free educational materials for students and educators, as well as 90-minute sessions for adults who can then teach youngsters in schools, libraries or Scouting organizations. She said 17 states are using NetSmartz material.
The educational sessions are voluntary and will be available statewide, Gansler said. "They just contact our office and we'll get it done," he said.
The attorney general said he introduced CLICKS in Howard County because officials in the school system seemed particularly receptive. The first 90-minute training session for educators is scheduled for July 31 at Howard High School, he said.
Grasmick noted that computer technology plays an increasingly important role in education, but kids need to be aware of the Web's dangers.
"This is so critical to their safety," she said "I'm just thrilled to be here and be a partner in this."
Detective Sgt. Robert Smolek, supervisor of the Maryland State Police Computer Crimes Unit, noted that Internet crime is so pervasive that "we can't investigate our way out of it." The best way to reduce crime, he said, is by helping children understand the dangers.
"The end goal is to educate children to keep them from becoming a victim in the first place," Smolek said.
Gansler led a demonstration of the NetSmartz materials with a class of about 20 fourth-graders, who filed into the school library to participate. "Does anyone here not use the Internet?" he asked. Hands stayed down.
On an overhead screen, blue-hued cartoon characters "Nettie" and "Webster" introduced such characters as "Follow You Fiona," who wants to know a computer user's personal information, and "Hot Head," who says mean things.
The half-hour session focused on three specific rules of Internet use: Tell a trusted adult about anything scary, uncomfortable or confusing; ask a parent or guardian before sharing personal information; and never meet in person anyone who was first met online.
"On the Web, you never really know who you are talking to," Nettie said.
Gansler asked the students about their favorite Web sites, and students told him about Club Penguin, Neopets and Rune. Gansler said state attorneys general throughout the country have been taking action to limit Internet-related crimes. "I think there's a collective will," he said.
Timmy Malaney, 10, said one of his favorite sites is Club Penguin. Though he has never had a bad experience with the Internet, he found the session helpful.
"There were some things I didn't know," he said. "I didn't know people could follow you around."