I have worked as a police officer for the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department for the last twenty years, and I have served as the School Resource Officer for the last three. I regularly provide digital safety awareness education to youth in the Los Gatos community and give presentations that cover topics such as digital reputation, online safety, cyberbullying, and sexting. I interact with students of all ages on a daily basis, and understand the significant influence and impact technology and social media often has on them. Teens can get wrapped up in this “alternate reality” that can dictate what they like and dislike, the choices they make, and even how they feel about themselves. As a parent, you want your teen to be savvy with technology in order to be successful in today’s society, but where do you draw the line? How much is too much? When does it go from a positive tool to an addiction with negative impacts? Here are some key points that I cover when educating adolescents about technology:
The phone is a privilege, not a right
A person under the age of 18 cannot sign a cell phone contract; therefore, phone service cannot legally belong to a minor. Even if they work part-time and pay the bill, the phone is owned by the parents or other financially-responsible guardian. We give cell phones to teens as a sign of trust and as a safety precaution. As the owner, you have the right to take back the phone if you feel it is warranted. If something bad happens – like a car accident, an overdose, or a crime – and the phone is involved in the outcome, you will be civilly liable for it. Cell phones contain physical and virtual records of conversations and interactions. It is in your family’s best interest to make sure that your teens use cell phones responsibly. Consider implementing a technology contract with your teen. You can add in clauses about having the password to your teen’s cell phone and/or social media accounts, turning off the phone at a specific time each night, and on the consequences when those rules are broken. Be sure to include your teen in these discussions and explain your reasoning behind your guidelines to ensure they feel heard and protected, not punished and misunderstood.
Victimization through social media
It’s a rare occurrence to find a child predator out near schools and parks in the digital age. Predators only need a laptop and an internet connection to victimize adolescents using social media. They can lie about who they are and trick young victims into confiding in them. After gaining their trust, predators can manipulate and coerce teens to do just about anything, including meeting them in person. There have been investigations where a single predator harassed dozens of underage victims. Social media is a very powerful tool for predators. You cannot monitor every aspect of your teen’s social media use, but you can tell them the truth about the very real danger of online predators. Teen shouldn’t always believe someone is who they say they are, and should never agree to meet with someone in person that they connect with online. Remember, the keyboard is a shield and can conceal true identities.
Digital reputations affect the future
Employers and colleges use social media to research their applicants. Teens post almost every aspect of their lives: who their friends are, where they go, what they do, what they buy, and even what they eat. With all that information floating around, you only need to turn to social media to discover intimate details about who people are in their personal lives. Social media can be a really useful and positive tool used to market yourself for college or employment. However, one post or tweet can also be the reason your teen does not get accepted into a college, does not get hired for a job, or loses a scholarship. All this information gets saved and stored forever on servers, the Cloud, and across different devices – it’s easily retrieved and can be used against them. Encourage your teens to consider these serious consequences when posting on social media.
The impact of sending and receiving sexual content
From my interactions with students and youth in the community, I have found that sexting is a common occurrence with this age group. It doesn’t matter if we as adults disapprove of sexting, it is now part of the adolescent culture. When I speak to youth about sexting, I focus very little on what I consider inappropriate, because it is often not their reality. Instead I focus on three things: the criminal consequences, the civil liability aspect, and the social repercussions. Taking a nude photo of someone (even yourself) under the age of 18 is against the law. It is considered child pornography. If you have nude pictures of underage (17 and under) people (even yourself) on your phone, you are in possession of child pornography. If you share them with anyone else, you are distributing child pornography. This is a serious crime that can follow them the rest of their lives. Next, there is civil liability associated to sexting. The family of the defamed or exploited youth can pursue civil litigation against the responsible party. The responsible party will most likely be the parent, the one who signed the cell phone contract. If the picture plays a role in some sort of tragedy, then the civil liability could be even more serious. Finally, the social repercussions of a nude photo that goes viral can be incredibly damaging to a teen. These types of situations can lead to embarrassment, depression, and even suicide. Express to your child that they don’t want to be associated with a child pornography investigation, especially one that could result in a teen suicide.
Educate yourself about current digital trends, and educate your children early and often about maintaining safety and responsibility in the digital age. I typically start talking about this with students at the 6th grade level. The earlier you have these conversations with your adolescents, the more impact you can have on shaping how responsible they are with their mobile devices and digital technology.
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