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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Cape Elizabeth, Maine Middle and High School

On February 23rd, I was supposed to speak to the middle and high school students in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, but a snowstorm (again!) postponed it until Wednesday. But on Tuesday night, I drove up to the Middle School (with Phoebe in tow) and met Principal Steven Connolly so that I could set up to give a presentation to concerned parents. We weren't sure how many to expect.

I tied Phoebe up to a chair in the front row and she was an angel all night. A local TV station, WCSH, showed up to videotape and parents started coming in. We had a good crowd, over 50 from what I could tell, which is a good turnout. Usually, the parent talks I give are not well attended.

Throughout my presentation I answered loads of questions and tried to put their minds at ease. Several asked if I could move in with them (ha ha) and most were concerned about Facebook. I can't say it enough - if your kids are using it, get involved with them. Have them help you open up an account and ask them to be your first friend. If they balk at that, then that *is* a warning sign. They could at least friend you with limited access to their profile, but to outright tell their parent they can't be friends is not a good sign.

The next morning, I went back to the middle school to talk to the kids there. Like my Columbus presentation, the interactive sections were good and I thought it went well.

I moved on to the high school and met Jeff Shedd, the principal, who had been my main contact for the presentations. He had talked with me quite a while ago and he knew I would be looking at student profiles, etc. I have an alter ego I use on Facebook to see what students will friend me. I usually try about 60-75 students and this time I asked 65 to be my friends. 53 approved me without question.

When I showed them my stats and told them that when they have 300, 400, 700 and more friends listed in Facebook, how many of those friends do they REALLY know? I showed them a video of a girl their age who had been tricked by an online predator into running away with him. He pretended to be her age at first, changed his story until she fully trusted him "more than anyone else" and she ran off with him. She was lucky she didn't get killed. This shows these kids that someone *their* age had this happen to them. It's not just me as an adult warning them.

So, for the ones who friended my alter ego:

58% listed their cell phone number in their profile
3 boys listed their home phone
78% listed their AIM screen name
64% list an email address (sometimes two)
1 listed their home address (a boy)
1 boy and 1 girl listed where they worked after school

This information was now available to a complete stranger just because they wanted to increase their friends list. When I showed them who had approved me, one kid asked if that was legal. I told him that all of them (and anyone who gets an account on Facebook) shows up in a search result with their full name and profile picture, which is PUBLICLY available to anyone online anywhere in the world.

I then showed them the photos I found in their profiles, again available to someone who was a complete stranger and could have been a bully, a harasser, stalker or predator and there were several of them drinking alcohol (the drinking age in Maine is 21), giving the finger and some generally just not right photos. I showed them stats that colleges, universities and employers are now routinely looking at Myspace, Facebook and other profiles, as well as doing "Google" searches of candidates AND on current students/employees. What they put online could jeopardize their future.

As if that wasn't enough, I spoke about sexting, the latest thing where kids and teens are taking photos with their cell phones of each other naked, semi-naked or otherwise compromising, then forwarded them to others or posting those photos online. When I showed these kids that students their age were being *arrested* for felony charges of child pornography, they were pretty schocked. Then I showed them recent news stories from here in Maine, one where a group of teens were arrested for taking and passing around a photo of a naked teen girl and another of a teen who used his school-issued laptop to disseminate nude photos of a teen girl.

It takes one small misstep like that - which they think of as cute at the time and not realize the consequences could affect the rest of their life.

I loved how the students tried to find out who my alter ego on Facebook was. Most kept throwing girls names at me and why would my alter ego be a girl, anyway? Of course, I didn't tell. It was interesting going back to their profiles to see some making stupid comments like "hey you want to be cyberbullied?" and "let's sext and see if the WHOA lady sees this." On one hand, it gets me a bit upset they trivialize what I tried to warn them about, but on the other, it shows they *were* listening.

Over the weekend, I got a call from a concerned mom that her daughter was on Facebook, wouldn't friend her, had the laptop in her bedroom and shut the laptop when her mom came into the room and spent a lot of time on the internet, plus a friend's mom told her that her daughter had a "boyfriend" in North Carolina. All these were warning signs I showed the parents. I spoke to the mom and tried to be gentle, but told her she had to put her foot down and take steps to take control back on what her daughter does online. No, don't make her delete her Facebook account, but insist she let her mom be her friend, even as a limited profile view; give her mom the password to her laptop in case something happened to her (what if she got really sick, in an accident or, god forbid, did run off with someone she met online?) and to set some rules - after all, her mom pays for the Internet.

All parents need to stop being their child's friend and be a parent first, then a friend. If you're paying for the Internet and providing your child's needs, such as a roof over their head, food, etc, then you have the right to control more of what they do online. After all, you set curfews, make them do their homework, make them do chores to help out around the house and pretty much make them eat what is put on the table, right?

If they bullied, harassed, stalked or sexted someone on your Internet service - YOU could be responsible for it and could be arrested for what they do online in your home.

Enough of my ranting. The internet is not going to go away. Parents need to buck up and learn how to use it like their kids use it. Get more involved with their kids. Kids have to realize they don't own the internet - anyone online anywhere in the world of any age, race, gender or sexual persuasion *can* see what you're doing online.

And what they put online can and will hurt them in the long run if they are not careful.

Go to WHOA, WHOA-KTD (Kids/Teen Division) or Net Crimes & Misdemeanors for more info.

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