Cyber-bullying/Sexting Seminar Held in Washingtonville
By Eugenia Moskowitz
Rotary phones, box computers, and Polaroid cameras were the tools of communication most parents grew up with. But technology is ever evolving, and kids, who used to be just two steps ahead of parents and educators regarding cellphones and the internet, are now 20 steps ahead. Which makes their online safety an issue for both parents and schools, said Washingtonville Middle School Principal Theresa Thompson and Chief Assistant Orange County Attorney Tiffany Gagliano on Feb. 6 at an informative seminar on preventing sexting and cyber-bullying held at the district’s middle school. “The power of a computer is now in the hands of very small people,” Gagliano said, “and the dangers are immense as they can talk to anyone in the world.”
The auditorium seated scores of parents interested in what they can do to protect their kids. Senior Assistant Attorney Sandra Williams and Assistant Attorney Lara Morrison laid out what exactly cyber-bullying and sexting are, how images and words get disseminated, who can be found guilty of doing this, and how such acts are prosecuted.
Sexting means sending explicit photographs or messages via mobile phone. It’s a crime to send out or pass along explicit photos of oneself or others, yet 22 percent of reported girls and 18 percent of reported boys have handed over nude or semi-nude pictures, often while in a relationship or trying to get into a relationship, after a breakup to “get even,” or stalking before or after dating. (Unreported statistics are higher, the attorneys stressed.) The images are then shared exponentially. Nothing is ever truly deleted from the internet; screenshot images can be passed around forever, and these images can come back to haunt boys and girls later in life as they apply to colleges, for jobs, or try to get into law enforcement or the military as employers and recruiters have so many fine applicants that they google applicants’ names looking for anything that can cut them out of the running. “Burning the negatives” is most definitely a thing of the past.
Cyber-bullying, unlike traditional bullying, is defined as the act of relentlessly attacking someone online, bullying them via electronic communication. It can be done by individuals or groups known and anonymous, and usually continues 24/7 whenever a child checks his phone, there is no escape. Unless the victim turns their phone off and disconnects. The attorneys stressed that cyber-bullying is virtual and exposes victoms to everything groups of attackers are saying or thinking. Whereas traditional bullying used to happen only in school, now it invades a children in their homes, where they were previously safe. Schools also now routinely handle issues on school grounds that originated online.
When police are called in, lawyers have to find out what offenses have been committed based on existing penal laws regarding harassment, aggravated harassment, and stalking. And kids can be found guilty of disseminating child pornography even if they send out an explicit image of themselves, and even if their intent was only to be “liked.” On top of that, the child is also simultaneously a victim if the images are disseminated and/or used as blackmail against them. Threats of sending the photo to their parents or to “everyone at school” is used as leverage to get more photos or make the victim do what the victimizer wants. The outcome of prosecution runs from probation, community service, and educational courses, to arrest, court appearances, search of phones and premises, and trial in family court.
Violent threats against schools, whether orally or online, even if made as jokes, must be taken seriously and investigated by police. This involves house searches and, if guns are present (as is often the case with law-enforcement families), seeing that all weapons are safely secured. Kids may not think it’s serious, but police and schools will take action if alerted.
How to prevent all this? Williams and Morrison said talk to your kids, even if they don’t want to hear it. Set social media time limits, since the more time a child spends online, the greater the risk of getting into sticky situations. Mute a cyber-bully instead of blocking him. Get kids outside or exercising. And most importantly, check your child’s phone. If you don’t have your child’s password, your child shouldn’t have a phone.
Parents should understand that vault programs allow kids to hide dangerous or inappropriate apps on their phones: Omegle, Whisper, and Kik (all anonymous chat apps); TikTok (no parental controls); and Down (a hook-up app). These apps can also be placed under innocuous hider-apps such as calculators. Kids are “smart,” Morrison said, because they can figure out anything on a phone, but “stupid” because they’re too young to have a fully-developed sensibility about what can happen with what’s being accessed. The attorneys concluded by saying that kids should never give their passwords out, even to friends, and they shouldn’t go onto friends’ accounts, as computer trespass is a crime.
Parents can use prevention programs to control kids’ phones from their phones, such as Teensafe, Forcefield, MamaBear, Circle by Disney, Net Nanny, Qustodio, and Bark, among others. YouTube videos can help parents download and use these programs. Williams and Morrison stressed that sexting and cyber-bullying cases reach their offices via all types of kids: sports kids, band kids, honor roll kids, special needs kids, etc, and that this subject matter is something all parents need to broach with their children, and keep discussing with them as they grow and mature.
CAPTION: Orange County attorneys spoke to parents about the emotional and legal ramificationsof sexting and cyber-bullying in an informative seminar at Washingtonville Middle School on Feb. 6. (Photo by Eugenia Moskowitz)