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The World in the Palm of Your Hand

by Robin Rieger

According to a Burlington County Detective who came to our children’s school earlier this year, six billion text messages are sent per day. Texting is the most widely used and frequently used app on a smartphone.

He said a statistic from January 2015 indicated on average Americans spent about 4.9 hours a day on their smartphones. The detective started off his visit about cyber bullying, internet safety, sexting and suicide by explaining that he talks to many different groups of people as part of his job in the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and High Tech Crimes Unit but that his visit that night was the first time he came to a school to specifically speak to parents.

I consider myself and my husband lucky to have been among other moms and dads who went there to get educated about the world that is in the palm of our kids’ hands if they have a cell phone, tablet or computer with apps and internet access.

It was an eye-opening experience and sometimes a mouth-opening one too, meaning jaw dropping, as he went through his program to help us help our kids.

As parents, we all tell our kids the dos and don’ts of childhood. Don’t talk to strangers, look both ways before crossing the street and all of the other warnings and advice about keeping them safe. Then we put cell phones in their hands that we think in many ways give them a safety net, a way to call and keep in touch to say, “I’m at so and so’s house” or “Practice is over, can you pick me up?”

Unless you live under a rock, you know there is also a downside to that cell phone and the communication it offers. I have reported on and have seen plenty of stories about kids bullying each other through social media and the internet or on child predators posing as teenagers to chat up and lure other teens. When we gave our daughter a smartphone we explained it comes with as many risks as benefits. We also laid out the rules about phone usage, downloading apps and explained we would be checking the phone from time to time.

Believe it or not, the detective explained there are some parents who don’t look at their kids’ phones or even know the cell phone passwords to get on it and that’s a mistake. He says you should have access to it and also be the only person who knows the passcode that would allow your child to download an app. This way you know what apps are being downloaded and know what they are used for. See what your kids post in that app. His unit investigates online enticement proactively and reactively, answering the call when a parent is concerned about someone their child might be talking to online. Many apps allow people complete anonymity. He stressed that we should stress to our kids that nothing online is private and that even the Snapchat photo everyone thinks disappears after a certain amount of time can be saved by another app you can download. Teens and pre-teens with phones like to compare how many “friends” or “followers” they have. But many are often friends of friends they don’t really know.

Cyber bullying is also investigated by his unit. He says 60 percent of middle school students say they have been bullied. He showed us a video and told us stories of kids who had taken their own lives as a result. He said more middle school students than you think are taking naked photos of themselves with their phones. I think that bit of information collectively stunned us. I wish I had recorded the session and could put a link to it at the end of this column but from my notes I can share his safety tips for parents.

• Get Schooled—Immerse yourself in the technology so you know it as well as your kids do. Be friends with your kids.

• Model It—If you’re not on your phone all the time, your kids won’t be.

• Power Down—Make family meals device free, set boundaries and reasonable times for bed and cell phone usage.

• Chat Them Up—Be honest with your child, explain what you are doing because you want to keep them safe.

• See It—Keep your home computer centrally located and visible.

The meeting was so informative I wish more parents had been able to attend. I was glad our middle school students had a session with the detective the next day to hear from someone other than a parent that how they conduct themselves by cell phone is as important as how they would behave publicly. And while we are putting a really big world in the palm of their hands, we still have the power in our own hands to make sure they are navigating it safely.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 1 (April, 2016).
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