Internet Safety

We’re concerned about what we hear in the news about teens getting in trouble online. Online predators. Phishing scams. Cyberbullying. Sexting.

We’re guessing you’re concerned too. The question is: What do you need to know about the Internet to keep you and your children safe?

Don’t get us wrong. We think the Web is an incredible tool that provides countless opportunities for learning, productivity, and communication.

This webpage is for every parent who may have questions about their children and safety concerns about being online. But it’s also for parents who think they may already know everything about their children and the Internet.

We encourage you to take the time to sit down and find out what your children are doing online. It’s in everyone’s best interest.

Social Networks

Child with laptop courtesy qwrrty

Psychologists use the term “social network” to describe any group of peers. Folks you interact with at work or through church are all part of your “social network.” Online networks such as MySpace, Facebook, and FriendFinder (or for younger kids, Webkins and ClubPenguin) allow folks to interact with one another online in ways that replace or enhance face-to-face interaction. Alone, social networks are connecting folks in ways that were previously difficult.  Social networks allow their members to frequently update what users call their “status” via computer or cell phone. Online friends thereby stay in touch by receiving status updates, public and private messages, photos, and videos.

You will find writers and “experts” online both in favor of social networks for kids and those against them. As with any tool, social networks can be abused. Recent statistics tell us the majority of our students are online and are participants in social networks. Participation in these networks doesn’t necessarily require a computer at home. You can learn more about social networks from a recent Technology Times newsletter we published.

We’re often surprised how students are using these social networks outside of school.  Many give kids a false sense of security about the status of the content they share. Many networks are built around the concept of “friends.” Friends in a social network are those folks to whom you give access to your status updates, pictures, and videos. Too many of the social networks have had lapses in security or privacy to be trusted, in our opinion. Not to mention, “a friend” one day might be “a foe” the next. We’d encourage all users of social networks to assume there is no privacy. Anything in an electronic, digital format is something that’s public. But what are students sharing online?

Login to a social network like MySpace and you get a glimpse of what a world without adults might just look like. Many well-behaved, all-around good students maintain appropriate standards online, but the exceptions might shock you. Students across the country are posting sexually-charged images of themselves, use R-rated language, and boast about their use of drugs or alcohol. While these behaviors are not supported on school grounds, for those students involved these behaviors take a toll on student outcomes when they are in school.

The tool of choice among students in staying connected to their peers is the cell phone. Text messaging is fast and efficient. Text messages can also be used to send messages to social networks. More sophisticated “smart phones” can instantly send pictures and video to online websites. Frankly, some of the pictures and videos you can find taken with student cell phones today is alarming.

Facebook Sticker courtesy Jay Cameron

Some students today have been dared to engage in the latest craze with cell phones called sexting: taking revealing pictures of yourself, and sending them to boyfriends or girlfriends. The practice turns ugly when the revealing photos are then shared with others either by cell phone or through social networks. Legally, sexting is a big concern to law enforcement if it’s considered pornography.

The safety of our students is a primary concern of every teacher in Goochland County. We ask for your cooperation in learning more about your student’s involvement with social networking—both off- and on-line. Ask to see their online spaces, monitor the communications over cellphones, and establish expectations for how these digital tools are to be used in and outside your home.

Social networks do a great job at helping us maintain connections. These new and emerging tools require us to provide good models and guidelines to guide their safe use.

Share Carefully

Keyboard courtesy dclanjewell

A lot of parents are concerned about how to avoid any problems with being online. We get asked if there’s a simple solution.

In fact, there is! So many concerns, from credit card fraud to concerns like online predators begin with maintaining privacy online. First and foremost, students should not be sharing details about themselves—where they live or go to school—with strangers. This means details like birthdays, phone numbers, or even their real names should not be posted in public spaces (including social networks). A few facts derived from various sources online can lead a determined person right to your door.

Second, be sure your computer is not compromised by viruses or malware. Regularly scan and disinfect your computer with tools to protect the information you’re storing on your own home computer.

Third, all members of your family ought to be using secure passwords when visiting websites and online merchants. Choose passwords that are difficult to guess. Ask for your child’s passwords to social networking sites. You may also wish to set parental controls on a computer to help guide children when it is appropriate to be online.

Web Links of Interest

What the Statistics Say

Daily text messaging among American teens has shot up in the past 18 months, from 38% of teens texting friends daily in February of 2008 to 54% of teens texting daily in September 2009. And it’s not just frequency — teens are sending enormous quantities of text messages a day. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month. Older teen girls ages 14-17 lead the charge on text messaging, averaging 100 messages a day for the entire cohort. The youngest teen boys are the most resistant to texting – averaging 20 messages per day.

Text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging and voice calling as the go-to daily communication tool for this age group. However, voice calling is still the preferred mode for reaching parents for most teens. (April 2010, Pew Research Center)

A new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 4% of cell-owning teens ages 12-17 say they have sent sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude images or videos of themselves to someone else via text messaging, a practice also known as “sexting”; 15% say they have received such images of someone they know via text message. (December 2009, Pew Research Center)

About one third (32%) of all teenagers who use the internet say they have been targets of a range of annoying and potentially menacing online activities — such as receiving threatening messages; having their private emails or text messages forwarded without consent; having an embarrassing picture posted without permission; or having rumors about them spread online. (June 2007, Pew Research Center)

Scene from our Schools