Baldwin-Whitehall Internet safety course offers parents insight into cyber life
The photograph of Tina Smith, an attractive blonde teenage girl, popped up as a friend request on 50 teenage boys' Facebook pages one Sunday night.
Within several days, more than 120 teenagers became friends with Smith on Facebook, even though they had never met her.
“Tina Smith,” it turns out, was the disguise of a woman working with the district attorney's office, instead of the new classmate the teens thought she was, said Detective Tony Cortazzo, a local police officer and regional representative of the Child Advocacy Center, which interviews child abuse victims and provides education to county programs, police and schools.
The exercise was designed to show school officials, parents and students that people may not be who they say they are online.
“Where are our ‘friends?' . . . When we were kids, our friends were actual people,” Cortazzo said. “We can complain about our teachers and parents online today, sometimes to people we don't know . . . everything is on the Internet now.”
Cortazzo held an Internet safety workshop for about 30 Baldwin-Whitehall School District parents last week in Baldwin High School's LGI room. The presentation addressed the ways that email, social media, video chat sites, video games and cellular phones can be used to hurt children, and the steps parents should take to better educate their children of the dangers.
Cortazzo also addressed cyber bullying, its consequences and how to combat it.
Earlier this fall, Cortazzo spoke with the faculty and staff in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District to educate them on Internet safety.
He also will give a similar presentation about Internet safety with students at J.E. Harrison Middle School on Nov. 20 and is working with Baldwin High School's administration to give a similar presentation to the older students in early December.
“We are a connected world. . . we are 24 hours a day,” Cortazzo said. “We put it out there ourselves.”
Parents are encouraged to be proactive with their children by knowing which Internet programs the children belong to, setting guidelines and monitoring use, Cortazzo said. If the parent pays for the electronic device, they have every right to search it at will.
Cortazzo said that even though there are thousands of beneficial uses of the Internet, there are some that “If something is on the Internet, it's not private,” he said.
For example, sites such as Facebook make a profit by selling users' information, so users should be careful of what they voluntarily submit. It could be easy to find a user's home address from photos or posts as well.
Likewise, children should be careful not to communicate with strangers online because people might not be who they say they are. There are programs, such as Fake Name Generator, that can provide a whole new identity online, including a verifiable phone number, email address, registered vehicle and home address, he said.
But there are programs that parents can subscribe to that will monitor Internet use, block certain sites and/or provide usage reports for parents.
Cortazzo also addressed how the Internet can be used for cyber bullying.
Cyber bullying can occur through email, cell phone calls or text messages, social media, video games and through instant messaging.
“That's where we're having our problems,” Cortazzo said.
Cortazzo told the stories of Megan Meier, Jesse Logan and other teens who committed suicide because of cyber bullying. There are as many as 19,000 teenage suicide attempts nationwide each year because of cyber bullying, he said.
Signs of a bully include children who enjoy conflict, find satisfaction in someone else's pain or have several online accounts, Cortazzo said. Cyber bully victims are children that suddenly stop using their usual programs online, get nervous when a phone call or text message arrives, show signs of depression, anxiety or stop wanting to go to school.
In Pennsylvania, cyber bullying can yield a charge of harassment by communication, which is a summary offense with a fine of up to $300.
Sexual text messages, too, can cause trouble for teens.
A crime occurs if minors take photos of themselves in a sexual way or simulating sex and distributes it, or someone else takes and/or distributes sexual photos of a minor, Cortazzo said.
The distribution of a sexual image of a child is a felony and can yield a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Also, the number of felonies increases per photo and per distribution, so if two photos are distributed to 10 people, that equals 20 felony charges.
The Baldwin-Whitehall School District has a strict policy that if something involving the Internet or technology occurs on the way to or in school, it is the district's jurisdiction, Superintendent Randal Lutz said.
Disciplinary action, according to the district's cyber bullying policy, may include in or out of school counseling, parental conferences, loss of school privileges and exclusion from activities, detention, suspension or expulsion, and police action.
“Bus stop to bus stop, we have been involved,” Lutz said.
But if cyber bullying occurs at home, even if the content is school-related, the district cannot get involved, Lutz said. It's one thing for a student to post a message on Facebook stating that he or she will beat up another student after biology class, but it's another thing to actually do it.
“As a school, you can't extend your arm that far,” Lutz said.
For Baldwin-Whitehall's administration, faculty and staff and even himself, Lutz said he discourages them from friending students on Facebook or following them on Twitter because students will write any and all thoughts that come into their minds and some of them might not be nice or true. He regularly has comments made about him on the Internet by parents and taxpayers disagreeing with his leadership and students who are upset when he doesn't call a snow delay.
“You got to have a thick skin,” Lutz said. “Kids are kids. We all did the same thing.”
Laura Van Wert is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5814 or at [email protected].