There is an app designed to let users video chat with complete strangers. There is a website that allows someone to send an anonymous text message to another person with no way to trace it or respond. There is another app that allows photos to be sent to a friend that disappear in three seconds.
Besides trying to understand why these apps were created in the first place, the bigger question is how do parents keep their tech-savvy kids safe in the ever-expanding world of social media. Many say their kids don’t use these apps, but Officer Nelson Carreiro, School Resource Officer (SRO) for all three Warwick junior high schools, and Officer Leo Tetreault, SRO for Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, disagree. They see students at both grade levels using these apps daily and have to deal with issues of cyberbullying or other concerns that stem from their use.
“Kids are savvy,” said Carreiro, informing parents that there are students hiding apps or photos on their phones. How? Well, there’s an app for that.
In an effort to inform parents about the issues coming up in school with these social networks, whether they are accessed through an application, “app,” on a smart phone or through a website on the computer, the Gorton Junior High PTA arranged a special presentation on Internet safety and cyberbullying, presented by Carreiro and Tetrault. Fewer than 50 people attended, but the entire Vets community and their feeder schools were invited.
“This is a great opportunity for home and school to work together,” said Gorton Principal Jeff Taylor.
Taylor said the problems don’t stem from the use of these social networks in general, but from inappropriate use. To address the problem, he said parents need to have an understanding of these sites as the kids do. Because his students have grown up with this form of communication, they are considered “digital natives,” while parents could be considered “digital immigrants.”
“We deal with it constantly,” said Taylor. “We want to make sure parents, schools and school resource officers are on the same page.”
The presentation began with a showing of a “Socialnomics” YouTube video showcasing the power of social media through a variety of statistics. One that stood out for this presentation was 96 percent of Millennials, those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, have a social media page.
“It is great,” said Carreiro about social media. “It’s great to have, but there’s a lot of dangers as well.”
He compared the conversation about using social media to the conversation he had with young children about strangers. Because of the curious and impulsive nature of teenagers, they may put something out on social media without realizing the harm it can cause in the long run.
Carreiro also compared social media to drugs.
“It’s like a potent drug that’s addictive to kids right now,” he said.
Carreiro and Tetrault both admit they are not social experts, but have gathered information over their time in the junior and senior high schools to determine what sites and apps are being used. A number of popular social networking apps were covered during the presentation, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, YouTube, Kik, Text ’Em, ask.fm and Omegle.
Carreiro pointed out that most of these sites require users to be 13 years old, so some students are lying about their age to get access. That becomes a problem when sites believe they are 18 and allow adult content to pop up on the site through advertisements or recommended posts.
The officer also questioned why 11-year-olds have 200 to 300 friends.
“That tells me they get a friend request and accept, accept, accept,” said Carreiro. “We don’t know who you’re friending.”
However, because Facebook is a site many parents not only know but use themselves, many teenagers are turning to Twitter or the photo-sharing app Instagram to share every detail of their lives.
“It becomes a personal soapbox,” said Tetrault, with students sharing everything from what they ate for breakfast to where they are hanging out. And it is all out on the web for the world to see.
“A lot of it is public. You can make almost anything private, but kids don’t want to do that,” said Carreiro, explaining that many kids use these sites to be out there and making their pages private or not using their real names defeats the purpose.
But one of the more concerning features of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social network apps on cell phones is geo-tagging. When someone posts a message or photo on their pages through a phone, the phone’s location services will connect an exact location to the message.
“The coordinates of longitude and latitude follow the post,” said Carreiro, demonstrating how a few clicks can lead you to a map of the poster’s exact location. “Whatever they do, it follows them.”
Carreiro encouraged parents to teach their children to leave location services off. Criminals could use geo-tagging to find a poster’s home, especially if they just sent a status update about being on vacation for a week and out of the house.
“I never thought breaking into a house could be a crime of convenience,” said Carreiro.
Then there are the apps that have led to many cases of cyberbullying. Text ’Em is a service that allows users to send anonymous text messages to other individuals as long as the user has a phone number and the carrier. There are search engines that allow you to search for a phone number’s wireless carrier, but the site does not allow the text to be traced, even by the police.
Then there is Omegle, a website that allows for instant messaging or video chatting with strangers.
“This is an app you can put on your phone to talk to strangers. It’s designed for that,” said Carrerio.
He encouraged parents to get their students off this site completely because it could be very dangerous for young people.
Ask.fm is a site both Carreiro and Tetrault have said is known for bullying at the moment. The site allows users to pose anonymous questions to fellow users, which can start innocent enough, but escalate quickly.
“In ask.fm you don’t know who is following you. You know the number of followers but you don’t know who they are,” said Carreiro, admitting that he has logged into the site and seen some of the things students are posting because everything is public.
Overall, the concerns associated with the inappropriate use of these sites are that students may be subjected to cyberbullying, sexting (the posting and sending of sexually explicit photos) and Internet predators. They may also be sharing too much information, such as their location or the location of an empty home without realizing it. Even more kids might be publicly sharing email addresses, cell phone numbers, birth dates and more because of their settings.
“There is a false sense of security. We know kids are vulnerable to the risks,” said Carreiro.
But there are also legal concerns to worry about. Not only are the police looking at these sites to find incriminating information on gangs and criminals (i.e. the Boston Police using social networking to track down tips on the Boston Marathon bombers last year) but there are now legal ramifications for cyberbullying and sexting.
Tetrault said the use of social networks has made bullying extend past the end of the school day in the worst way.
“You used to have 12 to 18 hours at home. You had time to decompress. Now kids have their phone 24-7. They are sleeping with their phone in case someone tweets you,” said Tetrault. “That decompression never happens.”
Because of that, bullying from school spills over into the home and back to school the next day, causing an unhealthy environment. Now, schools have a right to act through the Safe School Act. If an online conflict causes problems in school, both parties could face consequences. And more sites are just allowing for more ways to bully.
“I don’t think it’s good when they constantly know what everyone thinks about what they do,” said Tetrault.
In terms of sexting, Rhode Island law prohibits minors from sending inappropriate photos, and there is a thin line to cross over into child pornography charges if someone shares a photo further.
In addition to checking location services on phones, Carreiro and Tetrault encouraged parents to have conversations about these concerns with students, keep kids active in the home so they aren’t on the apps all day, set parental controls and be savvy when it comes to checking on your student’s access to these sites. A simple Google search of the social network and a student’s name could reveal if their child even has a page.
But parents should never pull the plug on these sites completely, because that can cause more harm than good.
“Use it as a privilege, not a right. Let’s get back to this,” said Carreiro.
Although there is nothing planned yet, Taylor hoped that more community meetings such as this could be planned to keep the conversation going.