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Parents need to stay aware of kids' use of social media, warn about predators
[January 16, 2011]

Parents need to stay aware of kids' use of social media, warn about predators

Jan 16, 2011 (Winston-Salem Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- ---- The inappropriate online relationship between an adult and a child usually begins with something simple, a small gesture such as becoming friends on a social media site.

Often the adult involved is someone the child's parents likely already know.

The relationship then moves to private instant-messaging chats, followed by text messages and photos sent over cellphones before then becoming a true sexual relationship.

It's a pattern that Winston-Salem Police Capt. David Clayton said he's seen over and over as digital technology has moved from the realm of tech-savvy people to everyday users.

And the typical victim is different, too, he said. It's not just the kids who are the loneliest or the most confused. It's the kids who are most wired who are most vulnerable.

"It's the ones who have access to everything," Clayton said.

In the wake of allegations against a Jefferson Middle School teacher who exchanged 1,000 text messages with one student and is charged with 29 counts of sexual misconduct with two others, some parents are wondering how much they should monitor their children's text messages.

For Clayton, the answer is simple: Parents should keep tabs on everything their child is doing online -- Web sites they're going to, their online friends and to whom and how often they are sending text messages.

Clayton would not comment directly on the case involving Mark Mercer because the investigation is not complete.

He said that most of the time teens make the right decisions when using social media. But it's important that parents set ground rules.

Clayton recommends that all parents have a "courageous conversation" with their kids about the risks that come with online communication and how they can keep from becoming victims. It's not a one-time conversation, he said, but one that should evolve as the child ages and technology changes.

Children also need to know they can come to their parents without fear of repercussions if something online makes them uncomfortable.

"In stopping inappropriate behavior, early intervention is key. A parent should never have a hands-off approach. You can never give up, and you've got to continue to communicate," Clayton said.

Christy Buchanan, a Wake Forest University professor of psychology, agreed that parents need to take the lead in how children use technology.

"In my opinion, as long as the child is in your home and they're under 18, you have a right to say, 'If you have a Facebook page, I'm going to be your friend,'" said Buchanan, who has studied relationships between teens and parents.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system prefers that teachers and administrators use the system's e-mail system, said Theo Helm, a schools spokesman. However, sometimes changes to athletic schedules or such extracurricular activities as band or chorus are more efficiently handled by a text message.

Some administrators have cellphones provided by the school system, and the system can monitor those phones, but teachers have their own cellphones, and the system has no legal right to examine those, Helm said.

"Regardless of the mode of communication, any type of romantic or sexual comments or any kinds of courtship grooming are absolutely prohibited, whether in person, with a text or on the phone," Helm said.

System policy gives the School Board the right to limit which media teachers and students use to interact, but Donny Lambeth, the chairman of the School Board, said he doesn't remember the board imposing such controls.

However, that could change. He said that the board will need to revisit some of its policies.

"We must keep students safe when in our custody," he said. "We must refocus our orientation and training efforts to make sure our staff knows that we will not tolerate inappropriate behaviors with students." The technology itself often comes with services that can make them safer for children, Verizon, for example, offers free content filters that can be adjusted for the age of the child to control what kind of music, videos and Web sites can be accessed by the phone. Customers willing to pay more can add such parental control features as time restrictions on when the phone can be used, and even a GPS locator for some equipped phones.

Parents should take into consideration the age and maturity of their child when setting limits on social media, Buchanan said.

It might help parents to tell their kids that they are not involved to be nosy, but to make sure the children are safe, she said.

Someone who wants to take advantage of a child might be subtle at first, Buchanan said, and the child might not pick up on it. A parent can explain that a teacher's offer to stay after school and work one-on-one with a child who is struggling might be innocent, but it might not be.

"Parents need to be real clear that if you have a teacher who texts you, I want to see the text," Buchanan said.

Middle school is often a time to allow children a little more independence, if the parent thinks the child is ready, Buchanan said. A parent might move from checking messages once a day or once a week to spot checking such messages.

"Parents do have to find that balance between respecting their own child's level of maturity and letting them have growing independence, but maintaining their role as a parent," she said." Parents of high school students might monitor their children even less, as long as that trust isn't violated and the teen follows rules that are set down.

"One principle is that parents should be the people who know their kids best," Buchanan said, "and they need to take that into account when they set rules." Police Detective Ron Davis said that in about 90 percent of the cases he has worked, the offender is someone the parents either know or know about.

He said children need to be made aware that even innocent things they post or send can give a potential offender information about them or indicate when they are alone.

"A perpetrator looks for little things," he said. "They know what they want, and they know how to get it." Adult users need to know that minors are protected by law even if they don't object to what is being sent to them.

"Whether it's consensual or not, it's against the damn law," Clayton said. "As an adult, you're throwing your life away. No one is going to hire a person convicted of a crime against a child." ------ [email protected] 727-7327 [email protected] 727-4089 To see more of the Winston-Salem Journal, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2011, Winston-Salem Journal, N.C.

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