Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Internet and Cell Phone Safety

Back in April, Woodglen School hosted programs on Internet and cell phone safety presented by the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office and the New Jersey State Police.  In three separate programs, officers from these law enforcement organizations met with fifth and sixth graders, seventh and eighth graders and parents.  The presentations were excellent and, more importantly, eye opening, for all in attendance.

While most of us are familiar with some of the traditional dangers of being on the internet, the cyber world is an ever-changing place where new dangers pop up every day.  Just when most parents got used to IM (instant messaging) it became passe!  MySpace faded into Facebook.  Chat rooms found their way into online gaming.  I'm sure you see where this is going.  The problem we as parents and educators face is that we just can't seem to keep pace with the evolution of technology in the "world" our children live in.

While much was covered by Detectives Melendez and Gonsalves during their parent presentation, I wanted to highlight a few items for those who could not make it or need a refresher.  In addition, there are some new developments that I've become aware of since.

I hope at this point in time reminding you all that computers should be kept in a common area of the home would be redundant.  I do know, though, that many students are using laptops and the same diligence is needed - keeping them out of private areas.  So, you do all that and feel pretty good about the level of control you have.  Does your son or daughter have an ipod touch?  If so, this is another tool that needs to be closely monitored.  With wifi access, the touch gives children access to the internet, YouTube, Facebook and a host of applications (apps) that range from useful to obscene.  If you haven't already done so, take some time to check out what is loaded on your child's ipod touch.

While there are countless programs and sites out there for you to be concerned about, there are a couple that are quite popular.  If you have an eighth grader, chances are pretty good that he or she is on Facebook.  Heck, chances are pretty good that you, yourself are on Facebook.  Users are required to approve all friends who have access to their information.  It is possible to allow anyone to view information, though, and more and more, Facebook is making this a default setting.  If you or your children are on this site, make sure to regularly check and update the privacy settings that can be found in the "account" tab.  If your child is on Facebook, it is important for you to monitor his or her account.  Check out their information, check out their posts, check out their pictures, check out their groups and check out their friends.  Amazingly enough, at age 14, some of these kids think that they have 400 or 500 (or more) friends with whom they share a great deal of information.  If there is very little activity on the account, chances are good that they have more than one account - one that they share with you and one that they don't want to see.  Some of you might be thinking that we should keep kids off Facebook altogether because of the potential abuses.  While the potential for abuse is very real, and this is a decision that parents need to make for their children, I'm not so sure that avoidance is the best route to take.  I have a 14-year old daughter who is on Facebook.  I am her "friend" and check her page regularly.  Not long ago, I discovered a post from a male classmate that was inappropriate.  I talked to my daughter about it and discussed how she should deal with this.  I also posted, right on her page, a warning to the young man about being inappropriate.  I contacted his parents and the issue was handled.  Everyone involved learned something.  Our children are "digital natives" - they have grown up with technology, they use it on a daily basis and it will continue to be part of their lives forever.  Facebook and other tools give us the opportunity and responsibility to teach our children about acceptable and ethical uses of technology. 

Want to see a site that is far more dangerous than Facebook?  Check out http://www.formspring.me/.  This site, which bills itself as a place to ask and answer questions is nothing more than a forum for hatred, harassment and bullying.  People can post "questions" anonymously, questions that are more like insults than queries. 

After spending time on computer issues, the officer's presentation turned to cell phone issues.  I would not be exaggerating if I said that most middle schoolers have cell phones.  While there are many reasons for young people to have access to this technology, cell phones may be more dangerous than computers since kids have them 24/7.  The impetus for the internet and cell phone safety program came from a phone call from a parent who found out that his daughter was "sexting," that is, sending inappropriate pictures via her cell phone.  He wanted to find a way to reach out to other parents to warn them of this practice.

While this was the first "reported" case of sexting involving one of our students, national statistics would indicate that it was probably not the only case.  In fact, the day of the program, Mrs. Hinde and I were made aware of another incident involving two different students.  The exact numbers may vary, but somewhere about 20% of teenagers admit to sending nude pictures or videos of themselves via their cell phones.  Over 10% of girls between the ages of 11 and 13 indicated that they had done this.   

Sexting has many negative implications.  First of all, taking a nude "sexual" photograph of someone under the age of 16 is considered the creation or manufacture of child pornography, even if you are taking the picture of yourself.  Sending this same picture makes you guilty of distribution of child pornography.  These are serious charges.  In some states, as a matter of fact, there has been an attempt to hold the owner of the cell phone contract, the parent, responsible for these crimes.  The second issue at play here is the fact that once sent these photographs are out there forever.  The parents who attended the session in April saw a video about a high school girl who committed suicide after her life was ruined by photographs that were texted "innocently" to a boyfriend.  Once spread these photographs ruined her reputation and made her an object of scorn and ridicule, so much so that she felt she had no other way out.

Even if your child is not involved in sexting, and most are not, cell phones do play a role in the newest form of bullying and harassment, cyber bullying.  Kids do not talk on cell phones, they text.  Some kids send 100's each day as they communicate with their friends and family.  While texting is a tremendously fast form of communication, it leaves much to be desired.  First of all, texting eliminates all non-verbal forms of communicating.  I could spend hours on why this is an issue, but the bottom line is that it leaves all conversations open to interpretation.  It is much harder to tell when someone is kidding and when they are being serious by reading a text.  Second, texting makes people very brave.  Kids will text things that they would never say to someone's face.  This false bravado leads to problems, often verbal and physical altercations.

So, with all of this, what are we supposed to do?  How are we supposed to protect our kids?  Do we take away the phones and disconnect the internet?  While that might have some short term success, I don't believe it is the answer.  We must teach our children to use technology correctly.  We must teach them the dangers of posting information or photographs.  We must teach them how to communicate via email and / or text messages.  We don't allow 17-year olds to drive a car without supervision and training, yet many of us turn our kids lose on the internet without a second thought.  How can you strike a balance and allow your child to use technology without abusing it?
  1. Check on what they are doing on the computer.  Walk over to the computer unannounced while they are on it.  If they immediately minimize the screen or shut it down, they are probably doing something they shouldn't be doing.  Go on to their Facebook account.  If you don't have one, you might consider creating one and becoming friends with your child.
  2. Check their text messages.  At the beginning of the school year I warned students about the dangers of texting and explain that I read my daughter's text messages.  I heard a collective gasp, indicating that they were appalled.  To me that means that not enough parents are doing the same.  I take it one step farther, I go to my phone bill and count the number of texts that were sent (available through your carrier) and compare that number to the number of texts on the phone.  If they don't match, that means that something was erased, which is not permitted - only I can erase the texts.  It takes time, but I know what my daughter is sending, and, more importantly, receiving.
  3. Talk to them about the dangers and long term consequences associated with irresponsible use of technology.  Colleges and employers now check Facebook - post inappropriate photographs and you may not get in or get hired.  The photograph that you post just for "friends" can be copied and downloaded and used against you when friendships are over.  The nude photograph that you text to a boy can easily make the rounds of not just your school but many others and ruin your reputation.
I know that many of you reading this are probably saying that this information is good, but not really a concern because your child is a good kid.  Well, in our community, we are fortunate; almost every kid is a good kid.  Good kids, however, do dumb things.  Remember, we had two reported cases of sexting - both took place in your homes, on your time (one during winter break, the other during spring break) and on your phones.

The night of the parent presentation, I shared some of the questions that students asked the officers when they were in school the day before.  I prefaced them by saying that the students who asked these questions were VERY GOOD kids.  I said that if I shared their names you would either fall off of your seat or not believe me.  What did they ask?  "If I just watch a video, but don't download it, can it be traced?"  Wonder what kind of video these students were watching?  "If I send a picture of myself in bra and panties, is that illegal?"  Is there any doubt that they had already done this?

When I told my daughter that I was going to read all of her texts, in typical teenage fashion, she wondered why I didn't trust her.  I shared two things with her.  First, checking up on her made it easy for her to do the right thing.  She's a great kid who I have little worries about, but she is a teenager growing up in a dangerous world filled with enemies - people who would try to bring her down and lead her the wrong way.  By being involved I am trying to help her to continue to make the right choices whether I am standing there or not.  I also told her that I learned something from one of my favorite presidents, Ronald Reagan.  "Trust but verify," he espoused.  I would urge you to do the same.  Love your kids, enjoy your kids and trust your kids, but please, don't be naive enough not to verify!

Here are some sites you can go to for information about internet and cell phone safety:
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children    
NJ State Police Internet Safety Tips    

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