A crowd of parents, school administrators and faculty gathered in the St. Marys Area High School auditorium Wednesday night for a presentation aimed at teaching them how to better protect their children online.
Chief Todd Caltagarone and Officer D.J. Marconi of the St. Marys City Police Department, along with Tracey Myers from Dickinson Center's Children Preventative Services program, presented information on common online practices of children and some of the dangers inherent in those activities.
Caltagarone said that for many adults not familiar with social media like the internet, "It can be hard to wrap our heads around the digital world, but it is a world that our children live in. Our children are digital natives."
He acknowledged that there has been a fundamental shift in the way people communicate due to the proliferation of social media like the internet and cellphones.
The presenters took a moment to familiarize the audience with some of the lingo, phrases, and shorthand commonly used in online or texting exchanges. Caltagarone pointed out and explained some of the acronyms parents should be on the lookout for, like "IRL" or "In real life," which he said may indicate the child is planning on meeting somebody they have met online. Also, "POS" or "Parent over shoulder" may be an indication that the child is knowingly involved in a conversation or activity that their parent would not approve of.
In discussing the issue of cyber bullying, Caltagarone said that 40 percent of all teens with online access report having been or are currently being bullied online. Of those, only 10 percent told their parents about the incidents, and of those teens, only 15 percent contacted law enforcement. Myers said that there has been an increase in teen suicides linked to cyber bullying and that suicide is now the third leading cause of death in 12- to 18-year-olds. She added that for every suicide, there are at least 100 attempts.
The speakers notified the audience of possible indicators that a child is the victim of cyber or physical bullying. These include, but are not limited to withdrawal, loss of interest in school or extracurricular activities, and changing of peer groups. Caltagarone also indicated that there are signs that a child may themselves be the aggressor or bully. These include aggressive, manipulative, or compulsory behavior, and disciplinary problems at home and at school.
"It's different than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Then, if you were being bullied in school, you left it at school at the end of the day. They had 16 hours of peace. Now they go home and jump online and they're being bullied online. There is no break for them," Marconi said.
"Children will do and say things online that they normally wouldn't face-to-face," Caltagarone added.
The presenters advised parents that in monitoring their child's online activities, it is best to be up-front and let the child know. Caltagarone said that otherwise, if a child discovers parental surveillance, the trust can be fractured and the child may not be as forthcoming regarding a potential problem in the future.
"If they come to you with a problem, stop and listen. They might not come right out and say, 'So-and-so is bullying me'...they don't like to disclose things like that, it might be little pieces, but if they come to you with anything about a computer you might have to do a little probing," Caltagarone said.