The headlines seem to repeat themselves, day after day: Sexting Scandal Hits Local High School. Dangerous Challenge Trending on Social Media. Teens Face Criticism for Insensitive Video Gone Viral.
To many parents, it might seem the answer is to take away the smartphones, recycle the tablets and ban access to the family computer.
Digital Safety in the Wireless World (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xhf5LhBQfw), produced by the Paulding County (Ga.) Sheriff’s Office, lets them know there’s another way.
The 12-minute video, written and narrated by Det. Lenny Carr, uses a two-part approach to facing social media challenges: First, educate your children about online dangers, then teach them digital citizenship.
“There was a time when kids went to certain places to hang out, to be with their friends and to be cool. Now the hangouts are virtual, and if you ban your kids completely, they’ll be left out,” he says.
“And they’ll find a way to get online anyway.”
Instead, Carr advocates letting children and teens earn trust by proving they can responsibly use social media in a limited fashion, then increasing their privileges in incremental steps, similar to first letting them walk alone on their home street, then later allowing them to leave the immediate area on their own. Along the way, parents should monitor their behavior, and they might even consider entering into a “contract” outlining both parties’ social media responsibilities.
That’s the message Carr had been presenting throughout Paulding County (located in suburban Atlanta) in parent education seminars for several years. His presentation first explains to parents many of the ways in which their children have access to the entire world from their bedrooms, then talks about how they can guide their children to responsible social media use. In early 2015, his supervisor in the Crimes Against Children Unit, Lt. Starry Kilgore, tasked him with creating a video to help spread that message even further. Carr worked with the Board of Commissioners government access station, Paulding County Today and Jody Martin, media production coordinator for PCTtv; and subcontracted with local videographer Jeffrey Harkins, then spent several months researching, writing and refining his message.
The resulting script for Digital Safety in the Wireless World addresses issues such as:
The video resulting from these efforts went up on YouTube in early December, and although it’s too soon to tell, Carr hopes it results in a reduction in the number of calls he gets from concerned parents.
“Parents call me and say ‘Here’s what is going on with my kids and their smartphones,’ and they ask what they should do. I’d much rather get that kind of call than ‘I found naked pictures on my kid’s phone,’ but if they have found photos like that, taking everything away is not the answer. They need to set ground rules and work to re-establish trust and responsible behavior,” he says.
“I’ve studied the tools that are out there, especially the free tools that help you put filters on smartphones and Wi-Fi. A lot of parents don’t understand how easy that is and that they don’t need to pay for professional help. There are ways they can protect themselves and their children, and when I point out these filters can also help protect them from identity theft and even burglaries, that really gets their attention.”
Although Carr now asks his parent callers/visitors if they’ve seen the video, he’s also going to do more than wait for them to find it online: “I see this as a nice tool to have for in-person presentations too. When I go to upcoming events in the schools in March and April, my plan is to play the video, then expand on it in my presentation.”
Also, Sgt. Ashley Henson, Paulding County’s public information officer, reached out to the local school system, which first reviewed the video and then contacted parents via robo-call and an email with a link to encourage them to watch it. And the project doesn’t end here: Carr plans to develop a second video targeting “tweens and teens,” once again calling on informative resources that include an informal focus group of local youth, Lt. Kilgore, Sheriff Gary Gulledge and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. (GBI recognized Carr for “his exemplary service in keeping our children safe from online predators” in December 2015.)