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Experts: Preventing student social media abuse starts at home

Even if Kathleen Lee wanted to restrict her children’s access to social media, she knows the task would be nearly impossible. Although they don’t have smartphones yet — they’re 11 and 9 — they have computers at home and in school, where apps can also be easily accessed.

But more than having access, Lee worries about behavior and how to equip children who are not yet emotionally mature enough to deal with interpersonal relationships online.

“If you see behavior on a playground, you can step in and offer coaching,” she said. “But when it’s online, it’s different. It’s much harder for parents to step in. You can say some of it is just talk, bravado. But for the kids it is very real, and it has the same emotional weight as if they’re in the playground in person. I’ve seen stuff that kids would not say to each other face to face. They step it up online. I struggle with how we help our kids deal and there are not a lot of answers coming out.”

After a Pacific Grove High football player posted a bomb threat through a phone app against Carmel High, administrators swiftly fanned out through classrooms to warn students about electronic communication and its implications. The three school districts in the Monterey Peninsula coordinated a response that included bringing in an expert to talk about the dangers of social media.

But in the current electronic media landscape, where apps seem to multiply faster than online posts and where adolescents can’t be pried off their smartphones, the presentation was barely an opener to a larger discussion that has yet to take place about the online world and the role schools play in it.

It’s a conversation that should have begun years ago and should include not just how to use digital resources but also what’s appropriate behavior on the “information superhighway,” say experts, and should involve not just teachers and students, but also parents.

“As a kid, I played sports and I never saw equipment thrown on the ground and coaches say ‘Here. Make sure you don’t get hurt,’ ” said Martin Cisneros, academic technology specialist with the Santa Clara County Office of Education. “No, you were coached. We got the internet and we said, in order for kids to be safe, we need to block (sites). But you block Myspace and then you have Facebook, then Snapchat, and schools that succeed in all of this train not just teachers, but get the parents onboard.”

To be sure, most districts conduct at least an introduction to online etiquette — particularly if the students will be given access to school computers or tablets.

But given the overabundance of electronic gadgets, and how much time young people spend consuming electronic media, a few hours here and there are not enough.

“The training has to be constant,” said Joe Allen, an investigator with the Glendale Police Department during his presentation on online media in Pacific Grove. “Sure, you can monitor them, but we’re losing that discussion. If you block them, they’ll find other ways.”

The bomb threat made against Carmel was delivered through Ogle, a relatively new social media app that allows users to post comments anonymously on different school forums. Besides Monterey, Carmel and Pacific Grove, Aptos High and Monte Vista Christian schools in Santa Cruz County have recently been on the receiving end of threats through it. Authorities have already arrested three young men in Anaheim for separate bomb threats made against a high school in one of its forums.

Ogle developers warn users they have to be at least 17 to download it, and that it contains “frequent/intense sexual content or nudity” and “infrequent/mild alcohol, tobacco or drug use or references.”

Before launching, the app asks users to allow for the device to use location services.

“Ogle needs your location to find nearby communities,” it reads. “Don’t worry, your location will remain private.”

But as it turns out, social media apps usually gather a treasure trove of information that’s not just easily available to the developers themselves, but to tech experts and law enforcement officials. The Monterey County Sheriff’s Office last week asked prosecutors to move forward with charges against the Pacific Grove teen after completing their investigation.

Apps “ask for a lot of different information and kids are giving it away typing,” said Allen said.

Barbara Martinez, an administrator with Pacific Grove Unified, said that administrators’ warnings against Ogle effectively shut down its traffic following the incident. Indeed, there was only one post in the Pacific Grove High site on Friday, and only six in the Carmel High site, one of them bemoaning the fact that the app was no longer a cool hangout.

“RIP Ogle,” it read. “It’s been invaded by parents and administrators.”

Launched in August 2015, Ogle has gained a reputation for being used for bullying people. Of the 35 comments it’s garnered on the app store in the last month, 24 are describing it as the “worst app ever” for how it’s being used to degrade others.

“You guys have done an OK job at creating an app,” writes Austin Hendry 6565. “Your vision was good and you developed it well, but you didn’t think about the user. The user is a high school student who sits behind his/her (computer) cyberbullying other people from their school. It’s caused proms to be cancelled, teens being expelled, fights, etc. My school has turned into a mass gossip group that only wants to start (stuff) with other people anonymously.”

A phone call to the number listed for the Ogle developers, who are based in Palo Alto, was not returned. However, an emailed statement to a Los Angeles Times blogger from the “Ogle team” said they were aware of the concerns and were working with officials. According to the statement, cyberbullying is “absolutely NOT” the intention for the app.

But hiding behind the app’s illusion of anonymity students feel free to insult one another by name. It’s the type of behavior kids may think twice about displaying on the playground but, for some reason, emerges online without much consideration.

“It’s easier to do bullying and not recognize the impact,” said Paul Behan, chief technology officer at Carmel Unified. “Somebody who’d never do it in the hallway may be doing it online.”

Part of the reason may be the reward culture for meanness that has developed on social media. Having a large number of followers in an account like Instagram or Twitter is a goal, a badge of honor among young people. And these users have discovered that being mean to others attracts followers, Allen said.

“For some reason, people like to watch others be a bully,” Allen said.

This is where cyber education comes in, educators say. Children have to learn, from an early age, how to be a good “digital citizen.”

“A lot of schools are not doing this, but they have to,” said Mary Espinoza, a second-grade teacher at Monte Bella Elementary in Salinas. “I know it’s not easy to teach children how to leave a positive digital footprint, but it’s very important. I feel it’s important for them to start young so by the time they get to high school, they understand that that they’re communicating not just with their classmates, but with the whole world.”

With a new emphasis in online testing, California schools had an incentive to invest in technology and to put together some guidelines for its use. At Carmel Unified, students have to sign a digital citizenship agreement at the beginning of the year, when they receive their personal computers.

The advice “continues throughout the year, whenever (students) have a project that may involve social media or public outreach,” Behan said.

But for the most part, schools have not developed comprehensive digital citizenship instruction, something they acknowledge needs to happen.

“It’s something we need to do better,” said Manuel Nuñez, principal of Seaside Middle School. “We’re seeing more technology now, it’s so accessible and it’s hard to fight it. So many students have cellphones now and for me I think, how we capitalize on that, not only educating students (about its use) but also using it as a tool for learning.”

For Veronica Aragon, a nurse with two teenage boys, the message has to begin at home.

“In my household I talk to my kids about everything,” she said. “Do you want to talk about sex, drugs, do you want to talk about Facebook and selfies and how I noticed an increase in promiscuity and sexuality within our youth? Let’s talk about it. And we also talk about morals, ethics and who you truly are as human being, your reason for being here … In life there are decisions that have to be made and there are consequences. We need to be held accountable and we should be held accountable as a community for whatever we do and say, especially in social media and what comes out of our mouths. I teach my children to think about repercussions, to think how this action is going to affect others around me. And nobody wants to talk about this truth because it’s painful.”

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