This holiday season, many kids will get new cell phones, laptops, tablets or gaming systems. They can use them to talk to anyone across the earth. They can also send pictures and private information to anybody, good or bad. They may not always know which is which.
As Delaware’s former attorney-general, Patricia Dailey Lewis has heard a lot of horror stories. Now, as executive director of the Beau Biden Foundation, she taught parents and coaches about internet safety and cyberbullying at a Nov. 28 event in Millsboro Middle School.
It starts with just talking to your kids honestly, like any other life topic, she said. Parents have to establish communication, she said, so kids feel they have a trusted adult when things get overwhelming.
“I don’t think we did a very good job with the whole Facebook thing. Did we ever sit down and explain to them what a ‘friend’ was?” Lewis said. For instance, “When I look at their friend list, it’s like rando dudes from Eastern Europe, and I’m like, ‘This is a problem!’ We need to make sure we do a better job protecting our kids, and that’s really on all of us!”
It’s not just internet, cellphones and tablets. Parents, she said, don’t realize that gaming devices are online platforms that connect to real people.
Along with gameplay, connectivity can mean access to inappropriate content (violence, hate speech, pornography and other risky behavior), sexting, online sexual solicitation, personal privacy issues and cyberbullying.
“The conversation needs to begin when the device is provided,” for all ages, Lewis said. “When you give children a device, you go over with them, via a contract … what you expect them to do.”
That includes permitted actions and realistic consequences — not just losing screen time, but perhaps apologizing to whoever was affected. That should occur at any age, with every new device, Lewis said.
“Just like you wouldn’t give car keys to an 8-year-old,” she said, parents shouldn’t give them free rein on the internet, online gaming systems or similar devices. “Everyone you meet online is probably not to be trusted. … People are not to be trusted unless you know who they are,” which most youth don’t realize, she said.
Parents should discuss what is appropriate computer use. They should tell children not to share personal information, locations or passwords, or engage in inappropriate behavior, hate speech or violence.
“If you have a picture you’re afraid someone else will see, then you know it’s inappropriate,” Lewis said. Kids “know what’s inappropriate, … anything that would tend to embarrass somebody.
“The problem is they’re creating permanent records that they cannot undo,” she said of websites, shares and re-tweets.
Kids often share passwords (which is in and of itself a can of worms), use fake user names (which allows anonymity in bullying) and fake apps (such as secret chat programs disguised as a calculator program).
Without parental oversight, it can be easy for playground cruelty to follow kids into the home, on their cell phones and laptops.
“It used to be, at 3 o’clock, I could go home and be away from it. … Now they can’t get away from it,” said Millsboro Middle School Principal Jessica Jackson.
When it comes to shutting down a bullying problem, Lewis recommends that schools haul the children — and their parents — into a conference room. She recalled such a conference in New Castle County, after reading some mean girls’ particularly cruel text messages aloud to the parents of the perpetrators.
“The girls were sobbing, and the parents were shocked,” said Lewis said. “You can intervene before it gets to that, if you pay attention to what kids are doing online.
“The schools are doing the best they can — but, remember, they only see your child ‘this much,’” she said, holding her hands close together.
As for sending or forwarding nude photographs, “No one wants a picture of your penis; … and that’s child-produced child-pornography,” which is a crime, Lewis said. “The kids don’t foresee what we see as normal consequences of their actions,” including humiliation, bullying, blackmail, school discipline and police involvement. “Now this picture of you is everywhere, and we can’t get rid of it.”
Such conversations can lead to a frank discussion between parents and children about sex-ed and healthy sexual relationships.
Taking that a step further, she talked about strangers online “grooming” kids down a fearful path — befriending them, maybe sending gifts, requesting nude pictures or videos, and then, finally, using that for extortion. Or, human traffickers might befriend a kid and later give them a free ticket to Florida or New York City.
“Do you know how many times Delaware State Police are running up to New York to snatch some kid back?” Lewis asked.
Moreover, she said, 90 percent of child sexual abuse is by somebody the child knows.
“That can be the priest. That can be an old babysitter. That can be an eighth-grade teacher. That can be a coach at the Y[MCA],” said Lewis, stating that such organizations should have a policy against adults texting privately with kids.
(The Indian River School District’s Policy GBCB.6 only allows staff-student electronic communication for “a legitimate purpose specifically related to the staff member’s official job duties … through district-approved forms of communications, such as: email, learning management systems, other online collaboration platforms and legitimate broadcast software such as rainedout.com.” Texting is prohibited.)
Parents, Lewis said, should immediately report any issues, such an adult sending children inappropriate content. Good investigations are built on people reporting single incidents like that, she said. People can submit tips or complaints to National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at www.CyberTipline.org or 1-800-THE-LOST.
“Talk to your kids. Knowledge is power,” Lewis concluded.
On Wednesday morning, after Lewis’ lecture, two presentations occurred.
Locally, the Beau Biden Foundation presented a safety and bullying lecture to every student at Millsboro Middle School.
On a grander scale, in Washington, D.C., the Beau Biden Foundation and Special Olympics International announced a new partnership to better protect people with intellectual disabilities from physical and sexual abuse, with programs coming to all 50 states.
Named for the late Delaware attorney-general, the Beau Biden Foundation aims to prevent child abuse through education of adults and children; stronger child welfare professionals; and better child protection laws around the country.
Details and family resources are online at https://www.beaubidenfoundation.org.
By Laura Walter