July 2, 2014

Cyber danger: What parents need to know

Technology and social media comprise the one area where most parents are less savvy and skilled than their children. Most of the time, that doesn’t matter. The Internet can be a wonderful source of information, resources, and roads to new worlds of wonder.

It can also be a very dangerous place.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley recently had some of her top staff members make presentations to school district superintendents from throughout Santa Barbara County, to help bring them up to speed about the newest dangers to young people and the ways we can better protect our children.

The answer, as always, is education — letting parents and young people understand the scope of the issue and how to deal with it.

Take cyber bullying as one example. Children, especially adolescents, can be horribly cruel to each other because their feelings of empathy are not yet fully developed. The capacity to inflict real harm has always been present, but with the proliferation of social media that cruelty can now become constant. It can arrive via text message, email, or Internet postings and it can bombard a young person day and night. Tragically, we are hearing more stories of young people driven to suicide because they could no longer stand the shame, the embarrassment, or the pain of the constant harassment.

Adding to the problem, cyberspace provides anonymity that can embolden teens to be cruel. The hateful messages can escalate. Fortunately, in Santa Barbara County, law enforcement is pursuing vigorous action against these types of crimes. All young people and parents should be made aware of that.

Every time anyone engages with a digital system, that action can be traced. Law enforcement has the tools to track these actions and is committed to doing so in our county. The hope is that the mere knowledge of this fact could deter some young people from taking part.

“Sexting” is another perilous action for teens, who tend to think the first person they love is the one they will be with forever. For example, a young teen girl might decide or be persuaded to send sexual images through her cell phone to a boyfriend who she assumes will be her husband some day. When the pair breaks up, the boy might still have that image, and if the breakup was contentious, he could post the photo or otherwise share it.

This trouble is double-edged. The young woman, feeling humiliated and shamed, could become depressed or even suicidal. The young man, who had possession of and possibly distributed child pornography, can be charged with a felony and required to register as a sex offender in California. He certainly will not be going to the college he wanted.

Young people simply don’t know the dangers of what they consider normal behavior. Anyone familiar with the story of former New York congressman Anthony Weiner knows that this behavior is not even reserved for young people. But teens, in particular, can do stupid things that have a major impact on the rest of their lives.

A third area of concern is online grooming by predators. These deviants can assume the persona of a young man or woman and stalk a teen online, pretending to be a friend or love interest. Pictures posted online include geo-data, which contains the longitude and latitude of the spot where the photo was taken. It’s not hard for a predator to find his prey in person.

It is possible to set protections on Facebook so that this information cannot be accessed. It’s also a good idea for families to have computers in a communal room. Most important of all, for all these issues, parents should have open, honest conversations with their teens about what goes on online and what the very real consequences can be.

Parents need to teach their children to be responsible and aware of the consequences of what they do, in the cyber world and everywhere.

The solution isn’t to shelter teens from technology – that would be impossible. The solution is to help them learn how to use technology responsibly.