Social media seminar gives parents vital info

Published Feb 21, 2014 at 2:00 pm (Updated Feb 21, 2014 at 2:00 pm)

Most young people prefer to interact online, posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media avenues. However, communication should be face-to-face between those young people and their parents about the many pitfalls, so say the experts.

About 50 people attended a program Feb. 13 at Mt. Lebanon Public Library to learn more about ensuring safety on social media sites. The program was sponsored by state Rep. Dan Miller, D-Mt. Lebanon and the state Attorney General’s office, along with the Mt. Lebanon Council PTA.

There is one very important fact to remember – kids know more than the parents when it comes to social media and technology.

Miller told the audience that this is a different time for parents, and while technology assists parents and their children, social media sites may also endanger the younger generation.

“By the time parents are aware of the trends, kids already know about them,” Miller told the audience of mainly women. “It’s tough for parents to stay on top of things.”

Jerry Mitchell and Phillip Little, both with the state Attorney General’s office involved in educational outreach, outlined the major sites on social media, including the opportunity to adjust settings for privacy and the need to know their children’s passwords.

“Kids think its a way to keep things from mom and dad,” Mitchell said, adding “parents need to know.” If an event occurs in which the child may be in danger, it may take law enforcement officials days to break the password and enter the site to investigate.

Instagram is easy to use, runs on all devices like the iPhone, iPad and other tablets, with 150 million monthly active users. The concept is simple – photographs are uploaded to share, but those pictures are, unless a security mode is set, transmitted around the globe. The rules to register state the user must be at least 13 years of age, however, Mitchell said, there is no way for Instagram to police the rules.

“This is all they know,” Mitchell said of social media. He stressed to the parents that children don’t think like adults and can’t process the often disturbing results.

That, he said, is why parents need to be involved and know what their children are doing online.

In Snapchat, videos and photographs are uploaded and shared, but are only available for up to 10 seconds – but, Mitchell said, all of the images in a digital footprint are kept by Snapchat on a central hard drive. And, he said, Snapchat retains the rights to the images. To establish an account, the user need only to supply an email address, a date of birth and a password. A relatively new site is SnapKidz, which is a junior version of Snapchat. The good thing for parents about SnapKidz is the posted image is only saved inside the device used for the upload, Little said.

There are numerous other sites such as Twitter, which is used to keep in touch through 140 characters, Tumblr, which is growing in popularity, and Facebook, which is used to keep up with friends and relatives. Each has inherent dangers, but learning about security settings helps to minimize potential dangers.

During a panel discussion, Miller stressed the need for parents to communicate, to be aware and to retain passwords. The need to check in on a frequent basis may help the parents to know that sites their children visit.

“Being safe starts at home,” Miller said. “Kids are kids.” By talking with the child, the parents may learn more than expected.

Anthony Marmo, Deputy Attorney General, said the child predator unit associated with the office learns almost daily about predator attempts to seek out unsuspecting children.

David Spurgeon with the Allegheny County’s District Attorney’s office said life now is not just watching for the safety of children on the playground. Parents used to be able to provide a description of what was once known as the boogeyman. Now, the boogeyman may lurk unseen on the other side of a website.

“The playing field has changed,” Spurgeon said.

Mt. Lebanon police Cpl. James Hughes works with school children on an almost daily basis. Classes about the Internet, online websites and cyberbullying begin in the third grade.

“And that’s not too early,” Hughes said. If a parent is concerned about what activities their children are engaged in, take the phone, or any device, away.

“It’s essentially your phone, and you have the right to the password or take the phone away,” Hughes said.

Panel member Jeff Longo, a counselor, said it’s important to keep the lines of communication open and “try to stay on top of what apps they are using, but it’s Parenting 101, talk and keep the lines of communication open.”

Longo also said to sit down and tell the child that if they have the phone and an account, the parent needs the password.

Two Mt. Lebanon High School seniors, Rachel Greenwald and Grant Smyth, also served on the panel. Greenwald said fake accounts can be set up on Twitter that are used to post negative comments about other students. The account can be established quickly and also taken down, so no one can find out who set up the account.

Smyth said if a child or student is concerned about a fake account, notifying Twitter is important. Smyth also said cyberbullying is done online and not face-to-face. That way, he said, “kids can hide behind technology.”

Sexting is a crime, Marmo and Hughes said, and can come back to haunt the child later when applying to college, requesting scholarships or when job seeking.

Hughes said not all sexting cases make it to the courts. Some are handled internally.

“You can’t erase cyberspace,” Marmo said. “It’s virtual.”

As for who’s responsible if a threat is posted, Longo said it depends on the age and level of threat as to whether the child or the parent, who owns the device, is responsible.

Miller, an attorney as well as a newly-elected state representative, said misuse of online devices can follow the individual.

“If you are over 18 and convicted of a felony, you have a problem,” he said.

“As access to the Internet becomes more readily available to children through smart phones, tablets and even gaming systems, I feel it’s important for parents to understand how to make sure their children are being safe online. Social media has opened up amazing ways to stay in touch and communicate with family and friends, but it comes with risks and it’s important for parents to understand those risks and how to handle them,” Miller said.

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