It’s been a frequent headline in national news and amongst many parenting conversations- the dangers that kids can find online without meaning to. What’s real, what’s not, and what can parents do to keep their kids safe in this ever-expanding digital age? Online safety is a constant primary topic in the news, especially after disturbing challenges come to light. Parenting and online professionals caution parents and guardians to remain vigilant and understand the dangers that can be found online and directed towards kids.
By Melissa Anderson
Youtube has been the main source of concern as recent videos have surfaced showing inappropriate content on the kid’s version. From the “MoMo Challenge” which surfaced recently and promptly went viral, spreading like wildfire, across social media, news, and parenting boards to the claim of a Florida parent that they discovered suicide and self-harm instructions spliced into a video meant for children, the filters on these platforms seem to be failing. Parents of young children have numerous means to reach out for help in terms of how to handle the onslaught of the internet, but sifting through the material can be time consuming and confusing.
Special Agent Jesse Smith of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation has been working with the Cyber Crimes Unit for the past eight years. In that time, the technology has changed tremendously, but the dangers haven’t.
“There are many dangers that deal with online safety and our youth. The first one that most us think of is online predators. These predators know where our youth are and will place themselves in those social media applications,” Agent Smith said.
Predators use social media platforms to prey on youth, but they are not the only danger- the youth, themselves, can pose problems. Agent Smith addressed the “social challenge” that appears frequently on social media platforms. Some examples of these challenges include the tide-pod challenge, the Blue Whale challenge, the disappearing challenge, the fire challenge and most recently, the MoMo challenge.
“These encourage our youth to perform dangerous stunts to obtain likes on social media and even encourage self-harm,” Agent Smith explained.
The dangers posed by social media challenges have not gone unnoticed by the area schools. The Langdon Area Elementary School addressed the most recent issue of “extremely inappropriate YouTube videos that are catered to children” by informing the staff of the content of the videos and educating them on how to help students make right choices and protect students from this content.
“Student use of technology at school must only occur with direct adult supervision. As needed, we also lock access to internet browsers on various devices,” LAES Principal Todd Hetler said. ”At the same time, we are consistently teaching and modeling appropriate and healthy use of technology. A general rule is that use of technology at school must have an educational purpose.”
St. Alphonsus Catholic School Principal Derek Simonsen shared that his school follows similar rules of use for technology. Classroom teachers and the school’s counselor discuss with students proper technology use and digital citizenship at an age-appropriate level. All technology used in the school is supervised by a teacher, and the school’s network has web content filtering in place to keep anyone on the school’s internet off of bad or inappropriate websites. Simonsen, along with fellow school administrators at St. A’s, have constant discussions with their tech support when situations like the YouTube issue arise and how to best address them from a technology standpoint.
“As a school, we want to embrace technology in the classroom and use the resources that are available to improve instructional methods and advance students in their academic growth. We fully understand that technology continues to become a bigger and bigger part of everyone’s lives, and we want to help students learn how to responsibly use that technology in a productive way,” Simonsen said.
At Munich Public School, Superintendent/Principal Robert Bubach explained that while they do not have a designated class that is strictly dedicated to online safety, two teachers, in particular, work to ensure students understand the dangers that being online can present.
“We don’t have a specific class dedicated to online safety, but we do have teachers- Mrs. Sanderson, who teaches business education and Ms. Beston, who teaches technology- that address the online safety in their classrooms,” Bubach said.
While LAES has not had a speaker specifically focused on healthy technology habits come to the school over the past four years, it is topic that is discussed in classrooms. Hetler shared that about two years ago, the 5th and 6th grade students of LAES at the time attended a presentation at the high school where the speaker covered online safety.
“It went over well,” Hetler said.
Bubach shared that in Munich, presenters are brought to the school to address the students about online safety.
At St. Alphonsus, the school counselor, Barb Boesl, meets with each grade level weekly at the school to discuss various things that concern the students and their development. One of the topics that is discussed with them is technology use and how to navigate safely online, whether it is on shared video websites like YouTube or using social media.
“Our counselor also discusses how to keep your personal information safe and yourself safe in today’s rapidly changing world of technology and social media,” Simonsen said.
Techonology is present in every grade, including the preschool room at St. Alphonsus where Carrie Hope. Hope however tries to stay away from overuse of technology. Her class uses a smart board for different activities from time to time and does have access to Ipads.
“I push to use more hands on learning experiences in the dramatic play or with art than screen time/technology,” Hope explained.
“Technology is a huge part of our lives. The big concern is how easy the children have access to YouTube and other website and how easy it is for just anyone to put something out there on the web. People have ways to sneak negative messages to our youth by making it look like its part of the toys they play with or the characters they admire,” Hope said.
Schools in the area are doing what they can to educate the youth of the county about online safety, but that is not enough in this day and age where access is ever present. So to must parents be ever present in helping their children be smart and stay safe online.
“General guidelines for keeping kids safe online would be to be involved in your youth’s life. Take a proactive approach to monitor your youth’s social media applications. Have them teach you about each application, create your own account and become familiar with how these application works. Build a relationship of trust with your youth so they feel comfortable talking to you if something happens to them online,” Agent Smith said.
Cavalier County Extension Agent Macine Lukach, who works specifically with family and community wellness, agrees. No matter what type of environment parents choose to raise their children in, “whether you keep a no-tech, low-tech or tech-rich home, kids live in a technological world, and they need to know their way around.”
“Children are going to see a lot of things in a virtual world, and they need to feel they can talk to parents and caring adults about what they saw. So families should develop rules changing with each stage of a child’s development and each new tech innovation,” Lukach said.
As parents themselves, both Hetler and Simonsen have established rules for their children when it comes to online safety and the use of technology at home.
“As a parent, I limit the amount of screen time of my children at home. I also keep them from some social media platforms,” Hetler said.
“As a parent of young kids, I believe that my kids’ technology use should be educational and developmentally beneficial. We attempt to limit screen time and only use apps and videos that are trustworthy and educational in nature,” Simonsen shared. “Along with that, we believe that our kids’ technology use should be supervised, and anything that they are seeing, we should be seeing.”
Lukach gave the following advice and tips for parents concerning online and tech safety.
• Parents can take responsibility by installing protective software, blocks or apps to limit kids’ access to levels of content that are developmentally inappropriate or which you simply do not want them to access.
• It is important that parents lay the groundwork for responsible tablet/cellphone use and manage the challenges and opportunities they bring and stay on top of what your kid is doing on his/her phone.
• Parents should ask themselves- “What am I role-modeling with my online habits? Am I setting a good example?” Kids often do as they see -not what you say.
• Kids earn privileges by showing responsibility and establishing trust. Establish clear rules about online access, texting, apps, downloads and any other options to keep technology safe and fun for your child at any age.
As children move up in grades, the desire for a cellphone increases. Lukach often works with children and asks them, “Do you have basic cell phone safety rules in your family?”
“When I ask the kids, most of them say ‘No!’ I find it interesting when visiting with kids about online usage and social media. Some of them are ‘Yes, my family has rules,’ which I think is great, and they have appropriate consequences if not followed. Some are ‘No, I can do whatever I want.’ To me, this is scary,” Lukach shared.
Lukach also advises parents to talk to one another about what is happening online. It is very beneficial for parents to share with their friends and kids’ friends’ parents what they are doing and what they are hearing.
“It helps that everyone is on the same page and together safeguarding their children. It is also easier on the kids if their friends have similar rules,” Lukach said.
To help kids maximize the internet’s benefits while minimizing the risks, Common Sense Media at www.commonsensemedia.org/ offers the latest research, tips, and tools on what really keeps kids safe. Another great resource for families and educators is NetSmartz at www.netsmartz.org.