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Welcome to the Real (Cyber) World

October 15, 2010
By Kathy Shapell

Would you let your child play in the middle of a busy super highway? Would you let your child stand in the middle of Grand Central Station and shout out his name, address, phone number, social security number, birth date, who his friends are and where he goes to school? Of course not - in the real world. But, what about in the cyber world?

By not being fully aware of what technology is out there and what its capabilities are, limiting its use, monitoring its use and teaching our kids appropriate and responsible cyber behavior, we may be allowing our children to do the equivalent of these and other dangerous acts online and through their cell phones. Do we think to ask or to check on their online and cell phone behaviors using the same diligence we do in the real world?

Do you know what websites and search engines your child visits? Does she participate in chat rooms? What about social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace? What personal information has he posted online? What kinds of photographs has she posted online? Who are his online friends? How many hours a day is she online? How many text messages does he send a day?

Last week I attended an eye-opening presentation at The Linsly School by nationally recognized speaker Katie Koestner that got me thinking about these and other important questions. The presentation, called "A Cyber World of Trouble," was timely given the recent teen suicides attributed to cyberbullying. Parents and teachers have A LOT to learn about the kinds of trouble kids can get into in the cyber world, only a portion of which involves cyberbullying, and how we can guide our children to make smart choices.

For example, did you know that when your child signs up for Facebook or MySpace, he has to agree to a Statement of Rights and Responsibilities?

And in those Rights and Responsibilities, your child agrees to the following:

"You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook, and you can control how it is shared through your privacy and application settings. In addition: For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos ("IP content"), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sublicensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook ("IP License"). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it."

This means that even if your child has his privacy settings set to Friends Only, Facebook (and the same is true for other social networking sites like MySpace) has the right to use and distribute your child's photos and videos. So, "privacy" isn't?' really that private after all.

Did you know that colleges and universities check students' cyber footprints to scrutinize their character? Did you know if they find inappropriate photographs, videos or other postings online, they may determine that your child is not a worthy candidate for their school, despite his stellar grades, extracurricular involvement and volunteer work? Did you know that employers also use this vetting process, particularly in competitive job markets?

Did you know that chat rooms are rampant with sexual predators, even in seemingly innocent chat rooms, like religious or sports-related ones?

Did you know that 66 percent of teens report that they have been involved in "sexting," sending nude or sexually explicit photos of videos of oneself via cell phones or email? Did you know that 18- and 19-year olds can be convicted of transmitting child pornography (and must be registered as a sex offender) if they transmit a sexually provocative photo of their minor boyfriend or girlfriend?

Do your children know these facts?

Did you know that the majority of teens own cell phones, and one in three teenagers sends an average of 3,000 text messages a month (100 every day)? Most teens report that they prefer texting to face-to-face communication. Texting places distance between the parties communicating and allows teens to say whatever comes to mind without having the consequence of actually seeing or even hearing the other person's reaction. This false sense of privacy and sometimes anonymity can prompt kids to say things they may never say to someone's face and with results that can be harmful to themselves or others.

In a split second, teens can push Forward and Send to distribute a photograph or message without forethought but with potentially catastrophic consequences.

There is a cyber world of trouble out there, but educating ourselves as parents and teachers about these dangers and educating our children to be smart consumers of the cyber world is the way to negotiate this challenge. One of the most important messages we can give our children is to exercise restraint, impulse control and good judgment, both in the real world and the cyber world.

- Kathy Shapell has a master's degree in special education. She is the director of the Augusta Levy Learning Center for autistic children in Wheeling and the mother of two children.

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