Technology is a lot more complicated these days, and parents should stay vigilant in monitoring their kids. Teenagers, on the other hand, need to be more careful about what information they post on the Internet and share on their cell phones.
That's the message Keith Dunn, an Internet safety expert and former detective with the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office, shared with a small group of parents and more than 1,000 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at several special assemblies held last week at the George L. Hess Complex and the William Davies Middle School.
Dunn, 34, of Manville, Somerset County, warned that students often experience more stress because of cyber bullying, which is a constant presence, and he advised them to avoid conflicts by confronting each other face-to-face instead of through social media sites such as Facebook, or to talk to a teacher and administrators to straighten out issues.
In the discussion for the adults, Dunn advised parents and other family members to keep close tabs on their children's computer usage, use software monitoring programs and know their children's various e-mail addresses, social media profiles and passwords. He urged the parents to constantly stay in communication with their kids to protect them.
"Your children have the freedom of the world we never had - they all have phones in their ears and laptops in their laps," Dunn said.
Warning signs that your child may be experiencing problems include:
Patrick McCarthy, the Hess school eighth-grade vice principal, said the online safety course was very important this year because all sixth-graders received netbooks with Internet access as part of the TALENT 21 program.
"It's one of those things where they need to understand the dangers and capriciousness (of the Internet)," he said.
Dunn also told parents to be on the lookout for sexting, or sexually suggestive text-messages, between students. He suggested that parents should limit the number of cell phone calls and texts their children can make, purchase special phones that only allow incoming calls from preset numbers, or even check up on the telephone numbers their children have been dialing.
"Back in the day, you wrote on a piece of paper ,'Do you like me? Yes, no, maybe,' check it off, that was courting. ... Not today. Things are a lot more complicated," Dunn said. "Everyone has a cell phone and your sixth-seventh-, and eighth-graders are texting through school."
Mays Landing residents Deborah Boynes, a paralegal and grandmother of four school-aged children, and Chrissy Doughty, a mother with one son, said they were surprised to learn that child predators often use multiple tactics and profiles to lure children. "You really have to monitor a kid on the computer," Boynes said.
Jenny Vargas, a homemaker, tutor and Mays Landing mother of two, said she was surprised to find out that there are no security monitoring programs for cell phones and that students could be prosecuted as sex offenders and child-pornography creators by snapping and sharing sexually suggestive photos on their cell phones.
Vargas said she was not concerned about the activities of her son and daughter, who are 11 and 5 years old, but she makes sure that their cell phones do not allow pictures and the home computer "locks out" at 9 p.m. Vargas and Boynes said they were upset the "Online Child Predators" program for parents had a low turnout with only six people; they wished more parents attended.
"We need to take care of our children and follow Mrs. Cleaver (of the "Leave it to Beaver" TV show), put away the cell phones, sit down and have a conversation," Boynes said.
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To find out more about Internet safety expert Keith Dunn, see www.kdcop.com.