Students learn risks of digital lives at middle school presentation in Hempfield |
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Renatta Signorini
Sixth-grader Mckenzi Selchan, 11, listens as Phillip Little, education and outreach specialist for the state Office of Attorney General, talks to students about the importance of “digital citizenship.”at Harrold Middle School in the Hempfield Area School District, on Nov. 19, 2014.

When the eyes of middle-schoolers get big, Philip Little knows he’s getting through to them.

The education and outreach specialist with the state attorney general’s office routinely informs students of the dangers that lurk online, most recently Wednesday at Harrold Middle School in Hempfield.

“It’s important for them to understand that far too often that they put things out there without any care,” Little said after an interactive presentation to a few hundred students.

The lesson in “digital citizenship” touched on cyberbullying, Internet predators, privacy and social media posts. It is one of many informative sessions on a variety of topics the office offers across the state for students, parents and senior citizens.

Principal Jason Lochner said issues crop up every year with students, mostly related to cyberbullying and inappropriate photos.

Cyberbullying is a growing issue for young students, a problem that didn’t affect their age group in decades past, Little said.

“You have it tough,” he told the students. “Because of social media, the term cyberbullying has emerged its ugly head and we need to tackle it head-on.

“You can never escape it, it’s constantly happening. In some cases, people have taken their own lives because of this issue.”

He encouraged the students to contemplate their posts, tell an adult if they see cyberbullying and think about ramifications. Students watched a video of a girl who was arrested while in seventh grade after she threatened another student who had cyberbullied her.

At Harrold Middle School, students are permitted to bring their electronics to use for classwork, said information technology teacher Cheryl Goughneour, who was instrumental in bringing the program to Harrold and to West Hempfield Middle School next week.

“They’re always attached to their phone,” she said.

The sharing of inappropriate photos has become mainstream, Little told the students, warning them that such photographs are considered child pornography.

“I want you to think,” he said. “That’s something very serious. Respect yourselves, respect your bodies. Do not get involved with something like this.”

“It really needs to stop,” Little said. “It’s a major issue among people your age.”

A study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics shows that more than 40 percent of teens seeking care at school health clinics said they are being cyberstalked, harassed via text messages and blackmailed with nude photos by boyfriends and girlfriends, not peers. A group of scientists at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh who conducted the study said cyberdating abuse is common.

Most of the students raised their hands when Little asked who had a social media account. Little encouraged them to keep personal information private and be more strict with online friends or followers.

“People can figure out where you’re at,” he said. “I’m here to make you think.”

Students viewed a video of a Pittsburgh-area girl who was abducted in January 2002 by a man posing as a teenage girl after they had conversations online; she was later sexually assaulted. They saw mug shots of area men accused of preying on children, compared with photos the suspects allegedly used for fake online profiles.

“Looks quite different, doesn’t he?” Little asked the students. “My point is that we don’t know who we’re talking to sometimes.”

Providing parents with passwords to social media accounts would help investigators in an emergency, Little said.

“It’s designed to keep you safe,” he said.

District officials can contact the attorney general’s office for information about having a presentation at their school, where Little most often speaks.

“The bulk of it is going into schools,” he said.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or [email protected].

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