Digital Danger

As Social Media Explodes (Again and Again), What is Being Done to Keep Kids Safe in the Cybersphere?

By Christina L. Lyons | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 12.19.13 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

Amy Diggs asks the sixth graders arriving in her Integrated Studies class at Middletown Middle School one fall morning to list the rules for being a good digital citizen. The lingering hallway chatter spilling into the classroom quickly stops and the 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls shuffle to their seats, dig out a pencil, bend their heads down and write. After a few minutes, Diggs asks them to share their responses. Several hands shoot up. Diggs calls on the students one by one and each are eager to share:

“No cyber bullying.”

“Don’t be unethical; don’t lie about your age.”

“Don’t reveal personal information that can tell people where you live.”

“Don’t start drama.”

They discuss the list and the meaning of a “digital footprint.” Then Diggs asks them to stand, form a circle around the room, find a partner to discuss questions about their cyberlives, the final one being, “Do parents monitor your online activity?” The answers vary, but reveal a stubborn, troubling wall between children and their parents: “My parents try real hard to,” says one boy.  “I don’t think my parents know I am on social apps; they don’t socialize online,” says another. “My dad can’t get in my phone; I password-protected it and I blocked him from my apps,” a girl states.

“Younger and younger kids have access to phones,” says Byers. “It’s becoming easier for people out there to contact children … and they can communicate all the time.”

At about the same time Diggs was keeping up with her class’s internet behaviors, one of three Frederick County officers trained in computer crimes was checking into more than a dozen tips he received of suspected internet offenses against local children … in one day.

“Internet crimes cases are increasing every year,” says Sgt. Eric Byers of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and active with the Maryland Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. Lt. John Wilhelm of the Maryland State Police, program director for the Maryland ICAC, says the dozen investigators in the state have difficulty keeping up with all the tips. “We need about 10,000 more,” he says.

‘You have to keep monitoring them’

Frederick County law enforcement officers trained in Internet crimes are investigating an ever-increasing number of cases involving children as more mobile electronic devices are released and new social networking applications come online.“Younger and younger kids have access to phones,” says Byers. “It’s becoming easier for people out there to contact children … and they can communicate all the time.”

The dangers, the officers find, are in a variety of uses of phones and technology. Teens are constantly texting, exploring the newest social applications and snapping pictures of themselves. And teenagers, and even parents, are sharing more and more information about themselves and their families on social media. “And if someone’s attracted to children, that’s where they are going to go,” Byers says.

“But kids also don’t realize that even if they do not give their name and address, they often are inadvertently giving out other information in photographs,” says Lt. John Reinnika of the Montgomery County Police Department.

According to a May 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of teens using Facebook provide their real name and 91 percent post a photo of themselves. The study also reported that 82 percent list their birthday, 71 percent list their city or town, 71 percent also list their school, and 53 percent post their email address. And while teens say they connect to family and friends, 30 percent are also connected to teachers or coaches and 33 percent admit to connecting to people they have never met in person. Facebook recently announced privacy control changes to explicitly enable teens to post publicly.

Meanwhile, 26 percent of teens on social media say they post fake information to help protect their privacy, the report says. “But kids also don’t realize that even if they do not give their name and address, they often are inadvertently giving out other information in photographs,” says Lt. John Reinnika of the Montgomery County Police Department, who also is active with the Maryland ICAC. “Selfies”—the popular trend of snapping and posting your own picture—and group photos often include revealing information in the background, he says, such as a license plate, the school, the house or neighborhood. And predators can purchase GPS tracking software to analyze metadata in a photograph to determine where it was taken, Wilhelm warns.

Increasingly, children encounter dangers on newer applications that parents have yet to discover and on applications launched by individuals or companies that are located outside the United States and are therefore hard to subpoena for information, law enforcement warns. “The technology changes weekly,” Reinnika says. He, Byers and Wilhelm say they keep up with the changes by talking to their own children—a practice they encourage for other parents.

But even for parents who try to follow their kids online, officers and educators warn that kids know how to hide. They create alternate Facebook or Instagram accounts, lock and hide social media applications behind gaming icons on their smart phones, and test the latest networking applications not yet even discussed in media headlines.

Counselors, teachers and police all say parents need to be more involved and understand what their children are doing online. “Parents always come in and complain, ‘I should have done more.’ … ‘My kids are smarter on the phone than I am,’” Byers says. “But you have to keep monitoring them, and keep constantly checking.”

‘We need to meet them there’

Diggs pauses in her walk around her classroom while the kids talk, and discreetly points up at her classroom ceiling where a green light flashes on a small white box—an indication that wireless infrastructure is in place, waiting to be activated when Frederick County Public Schools rolls out a new “bring your own device” (BYOD) program now being piloted in three schools. The program, similar to others being tested in school districts across the country, aims to take advantage of online educational tools and kids’ technological savvy to improve education—essentially meeting them online where they are anyway.

Cathie Deadrick of the Mental Health Association used to do outreach in the community and the schools on Internet safety, but the grant was lost and the position is no longer funded. Last year schools had to take it over completely on their own.

“Developmentally they are so worldly, but they also are naive,”

Teachers and counselors recognize technology is increasingly part of everyday life and express enthusiasm about the promise of Internet tools in the classroom. But they also worry about the rapidly changing online world and protecting students from bullies, predators and peer pressures—particularly if parents aren’t watching. So even while they incorporate web tools into the curriculum, they are continuing—and increasing—an effort started years ago to educate and re-educate students on proper online behavior, says Janet Shipman, Frederick County Public Schools’ coordinator of school counseling and student support.

“The kids know the rules; they know the stories, they know the statistics, they know the dangers; they know the pros and cons” of the Internet and social media, says Diggs, herself a parent of a middle-school student. “But when we take five to 10 minutes to check out what is really happening in the online world of our children, we see the lack of application.” She and other educators point to the prominent case of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a Florida 12-year-old, who committed suicide in September after allegedly being bullied on such social media sites as Kik and Ask.fm.

“Developmentally they are so worldly, but they also are naive,” Diggs continues. Children learn technology quickly but need supervision and guidance on its use. “They don’t have the capacity to make these really hard decisions” when they are socializing online, she says.

Michelle Beck, a parent of a seventh grader at Oakdale Middle School, says she’s explored some social media applications like Instagram and doesn’t see enough privacy controls or sophistication on the part of the young users to keep themselves safe. “My daughter is on nothing” other than email, she says.

Shipman wants to ensure the school system never faces a case like Sedwick’s. But she says it’s not an option to try to keep kids away from the Internet. “Kids today live their lives online,” she says. “So we need to meet them there.”

‘Nothing is private’

Students at Spring Ridge Elementary School, Windsor Knolls Middle School, Catoctin High School and the Earth and Space Science Lab in Frederick—where the BYOD pilot program began last spring and will continue through this month—have been permitted to bring their smartphones, tablet computers or laptops to access the school’s wireless Internet connection, according to FCPS Director of Technology Infrastructure Derek Root.

‘We’re trying to develop the methods to help the kids learn with the new tools that they have,” Root says of the program, which so far has been budgeted at more than $2.3 million to design and to launch the pilot and install the wireless infrastructure in all 65 school buildings.

More than 600 students at Windsor Knolls returned permission slips to participate in the pilot and about 750 students are bringing their own devices to Catoctin High School, according to school administrators.

At Spring Ridge, where only students in the upper grades have been eligible for the program, 19 fourth graders and 35 fifth-graders had obtained permission to bring devices, according to Principal Debbie Thackston.

Administrators recognize the number of students with electronic devices will vary by age as well as income level. For those who don’t have or don’t bring their own, each school provides tablets from various manufacturers. Results of the pilot program will help FCPS determine which type and brand of devices to purchase for which school level.

“We can’t get kids to understand that nothing is private. And [what they post online] never goes away.”

A full rollout of the program is set to start in February, with all schools on board by the start of the next school year. If plans remain on target, all middle and high schools in Frederick County will have wireless Internet access ready by the end of January, and elementary schools will be set by the start of the 2014-15 school year, Root says.

Meanwhile, a committee of legal experts, educators and technology experts is lining up the curriculum to match online tools available, devising 10 to 12 rules of “good digital citizenship,” and analyzing Internet access on the FCPS network, Root says. The network already blocks violent and pornographic websites. Certain social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook likely will be barred initially, while Twitter may be allowed and students will have limited access to YouTube. Over time, those restrictions may be altered, according to school officials.

FCPS and many school administrators and teachers are already testing out some networking tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to promote school programs and projects and administrators are watching to see what the community embraces. Further use of those applications, or any of a variety of others—Instagram, Vine, Twitpic or others that come online in the future—may be scrutinized for use by administrators and maybe even in schools, they say.

By middle school, “they are much more impulsive. In high school, they have heard it 10,000 times, but they think they are invincible and it’s not going to happen to me,”

Web Experience Coordinator Brandon Oland sees possibilities for positive uses of the applications. At 31, he says his generation has been immersed in social media and that even middle schoolers are “pretty positive and cognizant of social media” and can be encouraged and rewarded for “social networking that is used positively.”

But Shipman, who oversees the “character education piece” of the FCPS curriculum, says that while the school system has increased student education about bullying and online privacy and safety, “We can’t get kids to understand that nothing is private. And [what they post online] never goes away.”

‘A step in the right direction’

Beginning in the pre-kindergarten classroom, FCPS teachers and counselors provide lessons about the dangers of bullying and cyber bullying, according to outlines of guidance curriculum. In grade-level presentations, small groups and sometimes even one-on-one conversations, counselors instruct even the youngest students about online privacy and an “Internet code of conduct” because “more and more of our elementary kids have cell phones … and are lacking parents’ awareness,” Shipman says.

By middle school, “they are much more impulsive. In high school, they have heard it 10,000 times, but they think they are invincible and it’s not going to happen to me,” she says. “It’s not until someone they know is either [affected], killed or injured … that they even begin to think they are not invincible.”

A May 2013 Pew Research Center report, Teens, Social Media, and Privacy, indicates 24 percent of online teens use Twitter, up from 16 percent in 2011. The typical teen Facebook user has 300 friends and the typical teen Twitter user has 79 followers. The same report says those teenagers are revealing more and more information about themselves: their name, their photos, their hometown and their email address.

Statistics from i-SAFE foundation indicate that more than half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online and about the same number have engaged in such bullying. The Cyberbullying Research Center reports similar statistics: More than one in three young people have experienced cyber threats; more than 25 percent of adolescents and teens have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or the Internet; and more than half of young people do not tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs.

“We want every child to feel safe and be emotionally open to learning,” Shipman says.

As required by the FCPS “bullying-harassment-intimidation policy,” the schools respond to complaints or tips from anyone in the school community about online activity—either on or off school grounds—that may indicate bullying or a threat to a student’s safety.  “If it’s a situation that occurred online at night,” such as on Facebook or Instagram, “and if it disrupts the school day and a child’s ability to learn because of what is happening in the digital world, or if it impacts their ability to attend school, we step in.”

Schools that receive federal funding are required by law to address discrimination on a range of personal characteristics. The Maryland Department of Education provides a model anti-bullying policy for schools, much of which appears in the FCPS policy.

When a school receives a complaint, they typically contact the school resource officer or the sheriff’s office. In cases of cyber bullying, the school identifies the bully and conducts “re-education” on appropriate Internet behavior. Further consequences range from a warning to out-of-school suspension, Shipman says.

This policy has encouraged an increasing number of students to report incidents of cyber bullying or suicide threats, she says. “We always jump right on that. We don’t take it lightly,” she says. “ … It’s not our call to determine whether they mean it.”

Shipman says she also sees promise in a new program Maryland has launched to permit schools to ask Facebook to remove comments that are considered cyber bullying. And a new state Internet harassment law, called Grace’s Law after a Howard County teen who committed suicide after she was bullied online, makes it a misdemeanor to harass or intimidate someone under the age of 18 through the use of a computer or smartphone. Violators can be fined up to $500 or face up to one year in prison. “It’s a step in the right direction,” she says.

Regardless, “we must continue to educate all students about Internet safety and how misuse can be detrimental to them, their peers, and their future,” she says.

‘Kids are never alone’

Diggs’ discussion with each of her sixth-grade classes reveals a divide among the students on each of her questions about social media, including whether 13 is an appropriate age to be on Facebook.

“Our parents used to worry about ‘latchkey’ kids being left home alone. Now kids are never alone.”

“When you’re 13, you’re mature but not that mature,” says one girl. “I think it should be a little older.” Another girl disagrees. “I think it should be 10,” she says. A boy adds, “It should be lowered because a lot of people are lying.”

Her students’ discussion continues each day for several weeks as they delve into an assigned research project to answer one question: How is social media beneficial or harmful to students? The project, designed by a team of teachers and expected to be launched in sixth grades across the county, aims to teach students how to conduct research, work in groups and do critical thinking while focusing on an age-appropriate topic.

Although not all students have mobile devices like smartphones, Diggs says she hears their chatter about social media and sees them online. And, with the launch of the BYOD program, she knows the Internet is a growing part of their life.

“For right here, right now, we’re trying to see what it is that kids need to keep them safe,” she says. “Our parents used to worry about ‘latchkey’ kids being left home alone. Now kids are never alone.”