2013-04-04 / News

Seminar at Lawn Avenue warns parents of dangers of digital age

Expert says parents should be vigilant with technology
By Ken Shane

Last week Dr. Lawrence Filippelli pulled up his Facebook page in front of a crowd of about 40 parents. He had only 253 “friends” listed. In the eyes of most children today, he says, that would make him a colossal loser. Which is why, according to Filipelli, parents should be paying more attention to their children and technology.

In cooperation with the Jamestown Police Department, last week the School Department invited Filippelli to Lawn Avenue School to lead a cyberbullying seminar. Filippelli, an assistant superintendent in Scituate and the president of the Education Consortium, said that while he “only” has 253 friends, it was more important that he knew each and every one of them.

Filippeli’s presentation was titled “Social Responsibility and Social Networking: A Journey Into Internet Safety, Sexting and Cyberbullying.” His PowerPoint presentation began with his Facebook page. He said the fact that he knows all his Facebook friends is not the case with most young people on the social network. He said teens regard having large numbers of friends as conveying status.

Since Facebook is constantly updating its site, he says, it is possible that privacy settings can change without the user knowing it. Filippelli pointed out that sexual predators are active on Facebook, trolling for young people to befriend. According to Filippelli, once a predator has become friends with a child, it is a relatively simple matter to put together information including where they live and what schools they attend. Filippelli continually stressed the importance of limiting the personal information that children put on Facebook.

Research shows that a majority of middle school and high school students agree that it would be an easy matter for sexual predators to contact them based on their online presence.

“Your entirely life is online. Be vigilant,” Filippelli said.

The discussion then turned to text messaging, more specifically, sexting, which is the transmis- sion of risqué photos through the cellphone. Filippelli said it often occurs between students who are dating. The students assume that they are only sharing the photo with their boyfriend or girlfriend, but this is often not the case. Filippelli stressed that once digital photos have been transmitted, they are out in the world forever and cannot be taken back. On many occasions this has come back to haunt students when relationships end.

In some states laws have been passed to limit sexting. In certain cases, charges have been pressed on students for the possession and distribution of child pornography based on images that were transmitted or received. Rhode Island law in this regard has no teeth, according to Filippelli. Such charges are treated as a status offense and remanded to family court.

“Digital footprints get deeper and deeper, and kids need to know that,” Filippelli said.

Filippelli conducted a live poll among those in attendance. The result showed that 50 percent bought cellphones for their children. Another question asked what percentage of parents take the phones from their children for inspection each night. 60 percent of respondents said they did not.

Filippelli was insistent that parents have to take control over their children’s Internet activities. Since parents are generally not as savvy as their children when it comes to new technology, he says it’s important that parents monitor activities closely by inspecting cellphones and Facebook accounts on a regular basis. Despite efforts by responsible parents, tech-savvy children can find ways around the monitoring.

“Talk to them the same way you talk to them about drugs and alcohol and other bad decisions,” Filippelli said.

Filippelli said research shows 86 percent of middle school students and 83 percent of high school students say they have been bullied online. Even greater numbers say that they have been menaced or threatened. Large numbers say that they have gone online, used a friend’s password, and pretended to be that friend.

Filippelli said all transmitted images, email and text messages leave a digital footprint and can be traced by law enforcement. Despite the fact, cyberbullying is relentless, permeating classrooms and schools. Victims tend to lack self-esteem and often turn to bullying others. He says people engaged in cyberbullying show similar signs to those who engage is substance abuse, often failing at jobs and relationships.

“It’s extremely important to pay attention to the signs of this stuff,” Filippelli said.

Filippelli questioned the use of a zero-tolerance policy because such a policy tends to treat the bully and the victim equally. He said what is needed is good policy that puts in place strong and lasting consequences for perpetrators.

Deterrents that can be used including blocking contact by people engaged in bullying behavior; ignoring bullies and reporting them to responsible adults; using a family email address; teaching children to never give out a personal photo or other identifying information; parents being aware of who their children are chatting with online; limiting computer time for children and being sure the computer is being used for homework first; and placing the computer where it can be easily be seen by parents.

“They’re already better at this than you are,” Filippelli said. “You need to have some kind of control. You are your children’s first line of defense against cyberbullying.”

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