This past fall I received a call from the F.B.I. That was a first. The investigator told me that the agency had recently arrested a pedophile, and confiscated his computer. On it, investigators found pictures; one was of a boy wearing a shirt adorned with our Hillel logo. The investigator mentioned some potential names of students. They did not sound familiar. Since she couldn’t be sure she had the right names, she asked if she could come to school to show me the photo.
When she arrived and showed me the picture, sure enough, the boy was wearing our Hillel shirt. I felt a pit in my stomach. The incident happened a few years ago. And yes, he was our student. I cannot begin to describe the awful feeling of knowing this was one of our children. (The F.B.I. told me they would notify and assist the family, and they did.)
I tell you this story not to alarm you, but to drive home the fact that the dangers of the Internet and social media are not theoretical. They can be real.
Now, the Internet and social media in and of themselves are neither good nor evil. They are what we make of them. Initially, when Web 2.0 (dynamic, user-generated content) and social media came onto the scene, the potential for good seemed endless. People from all walks of life talked about the democratization of information and ideas, and the opportunity to unleash creativity and connect human beings around the globe. This all sounded amazing, and it still is. Our school embraced the use of technology as a learning tool. We even originally advocated using smart phones at school to help teach responsible use; eventually, however, we pulled back because we feel that is best for the health and safety of our students.
You see, the dark side of the Internet and social media wasn’t immediately apparent. We know a lot more today, and especially after my experience with the F.B.I. investigation, I cannot stress enough how important it is for parents to limit access to screens. Minors are too young to use them wisely or appropriately. For starters, early educators are reporting that parents are spending less time reading to children, leaving the screen to do the “talking,” instead of children hearing language and intonation as read by parents. Younger children have devices put in front of them in the car, at restaurants, and, too often, at home. The result is that younger children do not know how to make eye contact when speaking with others, and their social skills are diminishing. This then leads to more challenging behaviors. (Interestingly, a growing number of techies in Silicon Valley are not permitting their children to have devices at all for they know better than most the dangers and pitfalls when children gain access too young.)
With older children, the social and emotional toll social media can have on them cannot be understated. The overuse can lead to addiction, depression and even suicide. But because tweens and young teens are developmentally too young to internalize future consequences. no matter how many times they are told inappropriate pictures and comments posted on the Web are forever, and that they can have negative ramifications both in getting into colleges and getting jobs, this message is one we need to continually hammer home. At Hillel, we have had a few cases of cyber-bullying over the years, and instances of students taking inappropriate pictures and posting them online,. To support our students we have cyber security experts present to our students and we also teach responsible use of technology year after year. But we cannot do our part without parental involvement. I implore you to read this post by blogger Anastasia Basil, and to internalize her urgent message.
Because I feel so strongly, I want to reiterate that children should not be given smart devices until at least the eighth grade. If they have them now, it is imperative that parents limit their use, and check daily what apps their kids are using. Younger children should not be on social media!
Our children can be exploited! We must limit the use of technology, and raise the age at which we give smart devices to our children. Furthermore, we are obligated as parents to closely monitor our children’s activity, even in high school. It may be easier to just give in, especially when they whine that “everyone else has them.” It may be easier to just trust them, and not be vigilant. But the potential cost is way too high, and our children’s emotional, social and physical safety has no price.
When used properly and under adult supervision, the Internet and social media can be forces for good as well as resources for content and deeper learning. At Hillel, we will continue to use these devices and tools responsibly, and teach our students responsible use. What will you do?