Internet safety specialist talks to River Forest parents

There’s no way that photo of me drinking alcohol could get back to the place where I just applied for a job. After all, Facebook is private and I only friend people I know.

Wrong.

These are among the numerous misconceptions that Sarah Migas has heard from teenagers in her five years as an Internet safety specialist with the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

Posting from a fake profile at the library won’t get me caught. Sharing my password with my best friend or boyfriend is perfectly safe.

Migas said the list goes on and on.

During a presentation at Roosevelt Middle School last week, Migas told about 20 parents that in the digital world of 2012, pretty much everything is up for grabs. Her job is to teach kids how to think critically and make responsible decisions about what they put on Facebook, YouTube, in a text message or any other online forum that may pop up.

“I always tell kids you’re writing a digital story about yourself,” Migas said, noting that the issue affects adults as well. “What is the image you’re creating?”

In 2009, the attorney general’s office surveyed 4,231 kids in grades 3 through 12 about their experiences with cyber safety. According to results presented Tuesday, the average age that kids got their first cell phone was 11. The average age to create a social networking profile was 12.

That means they are learning how to publically present themselves at the same time their brains are still developing, Migas said, making it harder to control impulsive feelings and think rationally about what they’re posting. Many times they’ll post very personal thoughts and feelings that they think only their “friends” can see.

It’s also a concern when those friends are posting photos of drinking or drug use. Migas said it’s a normal process for teenagers to look to their peers as they try to individualize themselves from their parents. But seeing dangerous behavior of others can be a drawback.

“If something happens in a child’s life, they’re documenting it,” she said.

Kids desperately want to be hanging out where their peers are going and doing what they’re doing.

As a result, Migas said, parents should not be afraid to set limits. Tell the kids you’ll periodically check their phones and Facebook accounts, she said, or set a limit of how late they can have their cellphones at night.

Migas also encouraged the group to talk to their kids about what they might do if they encounter gossip or bullying, because people tend to bond through a shared aggression toward someone else.

She emphasized technology like Facebook and texting is not a bad thing — kids are very successful with it — but they aren’t born to be digital citizens. They need their parents’ help as they incorporate technology into their own lives.

“You’re going to have to be the bad guy sometimes, and that’s OK,” Migas said.

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