Cyberbullying's Threat to Wilton’s Kids

Wilton Library hosts an “Internet Safety” program Tuesday evening to teach parents how to protect their kids from online threats.

Judging by the recent story of Amanda Todd, the phrase “Internet Safety” might be an oxymoron.

Todd, a 15-year-old Canadian high school student, committed suicide two weeks ago after years of online bullying, cyberstalking and blackmail that began after she sent a topless photo of herself to a stranger she met online. This past September, she posted a video to YouTube describing her heartbreaking story, telling in a series of postcards how hopeless she became after the man posted her photo on various websites and social media sites, and also sent it to her friends.  

Todd was so desperate that just a few short weeks after posting the YouTube video—which carried her own bittersweet description saying, “I’m still here, aren’t I?”—Todd killed herself.

It’s the kind of story that happens ‘elsewhere.’ Certainly, it couldn’t ever happen in Wilton.

Well, what about the four Iowa teens who made news when they ran away with one another after meeting online through the Xbox gaming system. According to one published report, the mother of one said, "I don't let him have a Facebook account because I don't want him meeting people online. I didn't realize they could do so much on Xbox."

Does that sound like something that could reasonably happen to Wilton kids?

As a mom with children who, at the least are on the brink of Internet access, and at worst have already surfed the web in ways I don’t know—I think I have to take the approach that in Wilton, anything is possible.

I do, especially because I could possibly hear myself say exactly what the runaway’s mom said about kids online: “I didn’t realize they could do so much.”

Cell phones, smartphones, texting, sexting, Tumblrs, blogs, social networks, Instagram…it seems every day there is a new way to use technology which provides more opportunity for kids to stumble into potential threat. It makes it that much harder for parents to stay on top of it and help their kids navigate it—or simply just protect them.

I must not be the only one who feels the pressing need for guidance, information and help, or else there wouldn’t be a program like the one that’s taking place Tuesday, October 23, 7 p.m. at the Wilton Library. “Internet Safety,” sponsored by the Wilton Domestic Violence Task Force, Wilton Teen PeaceWorks and the library, will feature three experts who deal with the rapidly expanding landscape of social media and electronic communication, especially as it relates to kids and teens: Richard Colangelo, senior assistant state’s attorney; Rich Ross, the school resource officer with the Wilton Police Department; and Mathew Hepfer, the director of technology for Wilton’s school district.

Sometimes, the first place I go in my head, like many other parents, is a place of fear. The Internet is so vast, and changes every day. Predators lurk in so many different places, using so many different guises. I’m afraid I’m going to have to scare my kids about the reality of life—things like cyberbullying, suicide and pedophiles—before they’re ready.

“Parents can’t always live in fear of the Internet, because this is such a huge part of their child’s life. You can’t fear everything; it’s about being aware and actively participating in it,” countered Hepfer. Part of his job as director of technology for the schools is to interact with the kids and know what kinds of online places and sites they encounter.

Hepfer works closely with Officer Ross on several levels. For one, if there are incidents involving students and cyberbullying, or other online missteps, they coordinate efforts. Hepfer investigates it on the school side, while Ross can work with sites like Twitter or Facebook to try and take down inappropriate information, and if necessary, determine if there’s been a crime.

They also collaborate closely on in-class programs, where Ross can speak to students as part of the school curriculum, teaching kids how to interact online in today’s world and stay safe. Ross said he’s actively working with fourth and sixth graders on Internet safety lessons.

“It seems like every year they get younger and younger, the ones who have knowledge of what I’m covering. Years ago I’d talk to them about certain social networks and they wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but now they know. There are kids at Cider Mill telling me they use Facebook. I certainly wouldn’t want my fourth grader using Facebook, that’s for sure,” Ross said.

More and more frequently, Ross and Hepfer have to deal with online safety issues that crop up, especially as schools are now being required to become more involved in situations that happen outside of school hours, because such events often greatly affect the learning experience. Understandably, cyberbullying that happens to a student outside of school will have an impact on the ability of that student to focus on learning, concentrate in class, or even want to go to school.

But what’s also understandable is that parents can’t just rely on the school to police the kids’ activity or clean up the resulting mess.

Monitoring kids’ cell phone usage and texts, preventing them from texting and posting in the middle of the night, checking computers they use at home, accessing their passwords, and going online with them are among the things Ross encourages parents to do.

“It’s important for kids to see their parents are paying attention and staying on top of it. They don’t need to know the things you do or don’t know necessarily—as long as they know you’re watching,” he said.

The impression they want to make Tuesday evening is that parents have an opportunity to help at a time when their children are shaping their online personalities—which Hepfer said really happens from kindergarten through eighth grade. “It’s a digital footprint—the mark you leave on the world. Parents have a real opportunity to help their children be good Internet citizens of the world.”

There will always be parents who say, “What happened to Amanda Todd could never happen in Wilton!” or who insist, “That could never happen to my child!”

I’m just glad that at least what will be happening in Wilton is this “Internet Safety” presentation.

To attend the presentation Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Wilton Library, registration is recommended. Visit http://www.wiltonlibrary.org/events to sign up.


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