(This story was featured in the April 5, 2017 editions of The Edina Sentinel, The Media in Kahoka, the Shelby County Herald and The Clarence Courier newspapers.)
By Echo Menges
After many discussions with community members, students, parents and guardians, educators and law enforcement - we have come to a conclusion. Students are much more educated about online dangers than most of the adults in our region. Not all of them, but a lot.
Fortunately, local educators have taken up the call to better educate students about online dangers and school districts in the coverage area of our family of newspapers are ever increasing the amount of education students receive on topics like cyberbullying, sexting and online safety.
Students are educated by being put through a gauntlet of informational assemblies, discussions with their teachers and peers, and the consistent updating of information to students at school seems to be constant.
We adults are the ones who are lacking. We need to do a better job of educating ourselves where online safety and our children are concerned.
In researching this story, we came across countless adults hungry for knowledge about online dangers and we recognized the opportunity to hopefully help our readers become better informed, because no one has solved the problem of better educating parents, guardians and adults in general.
On March 23, 2017, Ken Mitchell and I used our online podcast, The Ken & Echo Show, to start the education process locally for adults.
We sat down with Sgt. Eric Brown, Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop B Public Information Officer, to discuss online dangers where children are concerned including cyberbullying, sexting, internet predators and we got some general information about online safety and some tips about what apps and social networks to be mindful of.
Brown, a parent himself and an educator, was a wealth of knowledge. The conversation we had lasted approximately 70 minutes. He came packing a wide swath of valuable and useful information. So much information, in fact, we can't fit all of it into this story.
Below you will find everything Sgt. Brown said in just the first 20 minutes of the podcast. If you find you want to learn more, we encourage you to go online and listen to it.
We've also included a glossary at the end of the story to help you understand some of the terms we commonly use, in case you're not familiar with terms like “screenshot” or “app”.
If you're one of the many adults we encountered who want to learn more about protecting children and online safety – this is a great place to start.
Also, we have reached out to high school and middle school principals in Clark, Knox, Lewis and Shelby counties with a list of general information questions about cyberbullying, sexting and educating students and parents about online dangers. We published those questions in our newspapers and will publish them online next week.
MSHP Sgt. Eric Brown Talks About Online Safety, Cyberbullying, Sexting and Child Predators on Episode 73 of The Ken & Echo Show
“Here are some things you don't want to do on the internet or on social media, as an adult or an adolescent. No one should really be doing this unless they are aware of what their settings are and know exactly who the crowd is they are talking to.
“One of the things you want to avoid is not to share personal information about yourself, which is where you live, your age, date of birth. Basic things like that – you don't want people to get a hold of. If you're a child, you want to let an adult know before you join a social network.
“Once your are active in social media or programs on the internet and you start to receive negative messages – you don't want to respond to those. Just ignore them. Don't respond. Delete them. Don't let those messages bother you. Do not respond or get into an argument with those people. They are trying to lure you and draw you in.
“Before you post something online, think about it. Whatever it is – it may or may not be there forever. On a lot of sites, even if you delete it, someone will have taken a screenshot and saved it or shared it (after) removing it from your pages. It might be yours, but if someone else has a record of it – it won't be hard for them to forward it on. Even some of the apps people use, Snapchat and things like that – that disappear after a set amount of time, things that automatically erase, nothing's stopping someone from taking a screenshot, saving it and sending it on. If you send something out there, if you put it out there, make sure it's something you don't mind having put in public. Make sure it's something you wouldn't mind sharing with someone you're standing in line with at the grocery store – or with your neighbor.
“Also, don't be a cyberbully. Don't be negative to other people. Don't say mean things. Don't make personal attacks against folks. Nobody wants to be a victim of that, so don't be that person yourself. Avoid those things. If you're not willing to say it to their face, it's probably something you shouldn't say on the internet either. Cyberbullying is a crime.
“Don't add strangers to your social networking pages, whether it be Facebook or Instagram, don't allow strangers in there. If you don't know them, don't friend them. Even if it shows you have two or three friends alike – if you don't actually know who they are don't befriend them. If you choose to allow a stranger in there – be very cautious. If you're on something like Instagram and someone from a specific page starts following you, be aware. Make sure you know who they are and it is a reputable group or a reputable company, not someone looking to lure you into something nefarious (wicked or criminal).
“If you run into a situation where you're selling things online, whether you're selling something on Craig's List or you're buying on Swap Shop, something like that, if you have to meet someone for whatever reason – do that in public. Don't have them come to your house. Don't go to their house. Do that in public somewhere – somewhere you're in the view of other people. A lot of law enforcement agencies recommend that if you're selling something on Craig's List or Swap Shop – do those barters or exchanges in the police department lobby. You know you're going to be safe there. If someone is not willing to come to that police department to buy whatever it is you have, or to sell you what they've got, then you don't want to be buying it from them anyway.
“If you get into a situation where you're being cyberbullied or people are making negative comments, threats or anything like that – report it to somebody. If you're an adult report it to law enforcement. If you're a child, report it to your parents and make sure your parents take the proper action.
“Think before you text out any type of inappropriate comments or any inappropriate pictures, whether they be nude photos or whatever it may be. Depending on your age or who you're sending it to – it could be illegal. Whenever you take a picture of your body, a nude photo of yourself, it is highly likely there is going to be a permanent record of that picture out there forever. If you send a nude photo of yourself to your girlfriend or a nude photo of yourself to your boyfriend, what happens when that person gets mad at you and you break up and that person sends it to 20 of their friends and they send it to 20 of your friends. In essence, you have exposed your nude body in public. Those can be extremely uncomfortable situations for your family, for yourself. And, it can also lead to crimes such as child pornography and other crimes. You can find yourself in some pretty serious trouble.
“If you're sending nude photos of yourself to someone who does not want them, yes, you can be committing a crime, and vice-versa, if you're receiving them from someone and you don't want those images – you need to let that person know, and you need to report it to law enforcement if it has become a problem.
“Another issue you have often times, if you're a younger child, an adolescent or a juvenile, and you think you're sending nude photos of yourself to another kid that's your same age – it very well could be a 55-year-old man sitting in his mom's basement that's pretending to be a 14-year-old boy or a 14-year-old girl, and that's actually who you're sending those pictures to. That's something you definitely want to avoid, because lord knows what those people are doing with those images. Are they using them for their own personal means, or are they selling them in the child pornography market? You know, once you take a nude photo and put it out on the internet, or send it to someone else, it's very likely it's going to be out there forever, and there will be very little you can do to get it removed.
“Is that an issue? Absolutely. There is a large market for child pornography, unfortunately. It's not a subject anyone wants to talk about. It's not a subject anyone ever thinks they're going to be a victim of. It's not a subject parents ever think their child will become a victim of, but it happens all too frequently.
“We have officers that are internet crimes investigators that go on to these websites and they pose as young boys and young girls and make numerous sexual assault cases and child pornography cases every year – just by pretending to be a child. How many children out there become victims of that, that law enforcement is not aware of? I have no way of saying. I have no way of knowing, except that it is an issue and it is a crime that is very common.
“The biggest thing is, it's preventable. By keeping track of your children and what they're doing online – as a parent – you can help prevent that. Educating children on the safe uses of social media and the internet can help prevent those crimes from occurring. It takes education and effort from law enforcement and parents, both.
“Whatever age your child gets a cell phone is up to the parents and how they want to handle their own home, what they think the maturity level of their child is. Is it a problem for a 10-year-old to have a phone? No, absolutely not. A lot of homes anymore don't have (landline) phones. Cell phones are the primary means of communication. When you have kids coming home from school and you don't have a (landline) home phone – they need a cell phone that you can call and say, hey did you make it home from school okay? Where are you at? What are you doing? Those things are great.
If you choose to let your child have a smart phone at whatever age you decide is appropriate, it's up to the parent whether they think the child is old enough to have it. That's okay too.
I want to make sure people understand that having a cell phone and having access to the internet, things like that, that's not a bad thing by any means. What we're talking about today makes the internet and social media sound like the devil, and it's not. There are a lot of great things that are out there for adults and kids alike.
The internet has made it a lot easier for kids to educate themselves and do research for papers. And, social media has made it better for people to stay in contact. Kids can communicate and stay in touch with the schools. I have a high schooler and a lot of stuff he gets from teachers is through an email system at the school or an app system at the school where teams communicate with each other to coordinate – those are all great things.
What you want to be sure of is that your child is mature enough and making good decisions while they're using the internet and while they're on social media. You want to make sure they are going to safe sites, that they are communicating with their friends and that they're using it properly – and not letting strangers into their world and not doing inappropriate things. That is up to the parent taking an active role in their child's life, and not being too busy to sit down and talk to them about whatever app it is and being open to their child using those things. You just need to be able to understand what it is they are doing.
If you're a parent and you have a young child that begins using social media, if they're on Facebook – be on Facebook, too. Be their friend on Facebook. I'm not saying you need to stalk them and creep on everything that they do, but you need to understand how things work and what's going on there too. Follow them on Instagram. If your child is using Snapchat – use Snapchat, too. Follow their stories. Know who they're talking to. Know what they're doing. Know who their friends are. Be active in their lives. You don't have to be the creeper parent, but you need to be involved.
“Whatever social media that they have, their phones – if they have them locked, you need the passwords to those accounts. You need to have access to those things so you can check up on it. That way, if a problem arises, you'll be able to deal with it. You'll be able to see what's going on.
“You want to have an open relationship with them and a level of trust where they don't try to hide things from you, because there's a lot of ways in some of these apps and stuff that's out there that kids can use where they can hide stuff from you. That's what you want to avoid. You don't want that to happen, because it makes it a lot more difficult to protect your child. Once again, you don't want to be overly protective. Kids have gotta have some leeway, too, and feel like they have some space and feel like they can make their own decisions, because that's part of growing up, too. Be aware and that your kid knows how to be safe, and that you're doing what you can to keep your child safe, too.
“There are a lot of great things that happen on social media. It gives kids a chance to communicate with each other, stay in touch, get up-to-date information. Life is just different now from what it was when we were younger. Cell phones are different. How we communicate is different. How you communicate with your boyfriend or your girlfriend is different than it was when we were children. Times have just changed. You have to try and keep up with that change as much as you can. You don't have to embrace it yourself, but it does help if you understand it.
“Kids are going to use these things. A lot of them use it the proper way and nothing bad ever happens, but you need to be prepared for it if something bad does happen.
Sexting: To electronically send someone sexually graphic photos or messages is sexting.
Screenshot: A screenshot is a saved image of the data displayed on the screen of a computer or a mobile device.
Cyberbullying: The use of electronic communication to bully a person.
App: An app is an application downloaded onto a computer, cell phone or mobile device.