Politics & Government

Five pro tips for SC parents to keep kids safe and out of trouble online

Can your child’s cellphone be used to commit a crime? Richland County schools say they are

Richland County schools investigated more than 500 police reports involving students and the use of technology and social media to commit crimes, including inciting fights, stealing and issuing school shooting threats.
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Richland County schools investigated more than 500 police reports involving students and the use of technology and social media to commit crimes, including inciting fights, stealing and issuing school shooting threats.

Assaults over cellphones. Fights advertised like entertainment events on Facebook. Cyberbullying. Sexting.

Today's youth are being raised in a digital era where technology gives them unlimited access to the internet and each other. That reality can cause trouble for students, turning them into unwitting perpetrators or victims of crimes, experts say.

Here are five things parents need to know to keep their children safe and out of trouble while online or on their phones:

Online bullying amplifies harm

Parents should monitor their students’ use of social media, including direct messages they receive, said Janicka Boyd, a former student of A.C. Flora High School in Columbia. A parent's intervention could help end bullying before it starts.

“Social media causes a lot of problems in schools,” said Boyd, who has experienced bullying online. “Everything starts on social media.”

Most of the time, bullying online and bullying in person go hand-in-hand, said Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

But cyberbullying can make victims feel they cannot escape because they have no control over the content posted about them online, he said.

"If you post a video of me online, or a photo of me online, there's no way I can get that taken down."

A student who changes schools to escape bullying may face the same fears again if new friends Google him and find an embarrassing post, he said. "It creates this sense of helplessness, and there's no way to move beyond that."

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Students are addicted to cellphones

If students want to sit on their phones all day, even during class, they will find a way to do so, said Ben Grayson, who graduated Wednesday from Blue Ridge High School in Greenville.

The problem is getting worse because it's "tough (for teachers) to stop it, because phones are really convenient. You can stick them in your pocket. Some kids try to hide it."

Teachers also are busy and don't feel like constantly being on the lookout for phones, he said, adding schools also need to support teachers with policies that help them hold students accountable for disrupting class.

Teachers need help combating tech's dark side

Patchin, of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said technology and social media have been positive influences on young people, in the way they socialize, network and learn. However, when it comes to dealing with students' abuse of technology, teachers are ill-equipped, he said.

"We demand, expect our educators to have knowledge to deal with these issues when, in many cases, they frankly don't." Making matters worse, "resources have been taken away from schools" across the country. What they need are "more staff to deal with these kind of issues proactively and preventatively," he said.

Teachers also need training on how to use technology in class, and parents need to listen to teachers when they raise concerns about cellphones distracting their students from learning, said Patrick Kelly, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. Government at Blythewood High School.

"It is exhausting when parents challenge the teacher and claim that their child would never have their phone out when they shouldn’t. Teachers have no reason to make this up — they just want what is best for kids."

Students create evidence of crimes, inappropriate behavior

Students sometimes unwittingly prove they've committed crimes, said Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Rodney Bayne, a school resource officer who works in Westwood High School in Richland 2.

Bayne says he warns students that they are creating trails of evidence that can be used against them when they text someone a threat or post something inappropriate on social media.

"Y'all send all this stuff out," he tells students. Sometimes students will record crimes being committed and show the videos to him.

Threats lurk online beyond school

Students face threats online beyond their peers, says John DeGarmo, a Georgia-based education and foster parenting expert and author.

Vulnerable children — neglected or abused, foster children or those from broken homes — are at higher risk for becoming prey online, where they go to find the things they are not getting from their parents or at home, he said. Parents need to monitor who their children are interacting with online, and set strict rules for when and how to use devices.

"A parent needs to remember what they are. They're a parent. They're not the child's friend."

Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself
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