Practicing cyber safety

As the parent of a ninth-grader devoted to her iPod, a seventh grader who’s enamored of video games, and a fourth-grader who knows his way around YouTube, I worry about the increasing role technology plays in my children’s lives.

Yes, I am an old fogey. I prefer print copies of magazines, newspapers, and books. I just bought a CD at a store instead of downloading the album online.

I have no games for my cell phone. I don’t dislike technology, but I am slow to adapt to it and leery of its power to put children in situations beyond their maturity level.

This is a challenge I never anticipated before I became a parent. It now occupies much of my mental energy — how do I keep up with technology, not just for myself, but so I can better guide my children?

Fortunately, I don’t need to have all the answers. I can learn from people like Dave Eisenmann, the director of instructional technology with the Minnetonka Public Schools and an adjunct professor at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

Eisenmann often gives talks in other school districts about cyber safety, and when he spoke recently at my son’s middle school, I attended the presentation.

Eisenmann told the auditorium full of cell phone-toting students that they live in exciting times, and that the new technology they enjoy will look clunky to the next generation, the kids who are now in diapers.

To safely navigate the ever-changing world of technology, he said it’s important to remember that information put on the internet can be seen by billions of people and is permanent.

“We want you to think twice before you digitize anything, whether it’s a picture you post on Facebook or a text message you send,” he said. “It gets saved somewhere on servers and is going to be around for a long time.”

Thinking before acting or speaking doesn’t always come easily to teens. Eisenmann said he likes to use something he calls ‘the Grandma test.’

“If you aren’t comfortable with Grandma seeing that picture, reading that message, or watching that video on YouTube, don’t send it in the first place,” he said.

If students already have posted embarrassing or unflattering information, Eisenmann recommended that they go home and erase it, in hopes that no one else has saved it, and that it won’t remain part of their digital footprint.

Other topics Eisenmann addressed were cyberbullying and harassment; inappropriate material; and the dangers of sharing personal information online.

Insults, threats, sharing embarrassing pictures, privacy violations, and password theft are the most common ways in which teens are bullied and harassed, Eisenmann said. People say nastier things over a screen than they would say to a person’s face, and they can’t see the other person’s face to judge the reaction. Technology allows a message meant for one person to quickly be transmitted to a much wider audience.

Eisenmann cautioned the students to avoid responding in anger, and he encouraged them to talk to an adult before posting something in retaliation. “Think about how hard it is to take that back. If you send a text to four people, and realize you shouldn’t have sent it, or you’ve forwarded a picture — how do you get that back? It’s already on four different people’s phones or computers. Once you put it online, you lose control, you can never get it back, and people can use it in ways you can’t imagine.” 

Eisenmann encouraged anyone who is bullied online to report it. He also encouraged anyone who receives a nude or inappropriate picture to report it immediately to an adult.

Schools place blocks on offensive and inappropriate internet sites. But many students have completely unfiltered internet access at home, which means they have easy access to online pornography.

Eisenmann said research shows that young people who look at porn are training their developing brains to think that those unhealthy depictions of relationships and bodies are healthy. Teens also can become addicted to viewing porn.

“If you go over to a friend’s house who wants to show you a video he found online, do your best to avoid that content, in the same way you’ve learned to say no to alcohol and drugs,” he said.

Finally, Eisenmann recommended that students set strict privacy settings on social networking sites and “unfriend” anyone they haven’t met in real life because those people may not be who they say they are online.

A Northfield writer, Joy Riggs is thinking about getting an iPhone with an old fogey app.


Cyber safety tips for parents 


1. Proactively discuss values, consequences, and expectations for technology use.


2. Actively engage and monitor teens’ use, and keep up with latest trends.


3. Set up a filter for computers and phones.


4. Talk about pornography, sexting, and web cams.


5. Emphasize that nothing is private.


6. Explain that everything is permanent.


7. Talk about respectful etiquette and cyberbullying.


8. Discuss the dangers of texting while driving.


9. Limit screen time and violent video gaming.


10. Regularly visit online parenting resources.