Methow Valley News

Safe navigation in the wide-open digital world

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Photo by Marcy Stamper
Some students expect the photos and texts they exchange on smart phone apps to vanish within seconds, but they learned that their communications live on forever.

The White Hatter has blunt advice for kids

By Marcy Stamper

A few dozen Liberty Bell High School students were intrigued enough by a teenage girl they met online that they friended her and exchanged text messages. At least one student was making arrangements to meet her in person.

But further contacts were nipped in the bud when a man who calls himself The White Hatter fessed up at a school assembly on Internet and social media safety last week.

As he always does before coming to a school to talk to students, The White Hatter, an expert on digital safety (in his 50s, not his teens) spent the previous few weeks following local kids on social media — getting to know the music they like, who their friends are, and where they live. Then he pretended to be a teenage girl to get to know them even better.

The White Hatter (aka Darren Laur) gave two presentations about Internet and social media safety at Liberty Bell last week, one for sixth- through eighth-graders and the other for ninth- through 12th-graders on Sept. 26. He also held a forum for parents and guardians later that day.

When he asked “How many thought listening to an old fart for two hours was going to be tedious?” Laur drew a nearly unanimous show of hands, from both students and teachers.

But his candid manner, refusal to mince words, and willingness to speak kids’ language — complete with words not printable here — kept them listening to his core message: “Everything you do online is permanent, permanently searchable, and exploitable for sale.”

A retired police sergeant from Victoria, British Columbia, Laur is now a full-time messenger for teen safety in the online and real worlds. “The Internet and social networking are the coolest thing ever invented,” he said. The problem is how technology can be abused by people with malicious intent, and how its long-term consequences are not always apparent to kids who’ve grown up with it. 

The majority of the older students said they have a smart phone. Even in sixth grade, about half of the students said they have their own phone.

Laur contrasts “digital natives” (young people who’ve used computers and smart phones their whole lives) with “digital immigrants” (their parents and others from a generation who’ve had to try to catch up). This was graphically illustrated when Laur showed a slide of popular apps such as Omegle and YouNow and asked how many people had heard of them. Virtually every student — but only two adults — raised a hand.

Risks everywhere

Risks lurk in many corners of the online world, according to Laur. When people reveal too much information on their Facebook page, someone can easily to track them down — even to their house — through geographical information embedded in photos.

Young people may unwittingly create problems for themselves by posting information and photos that seem benign. These postings haunt them and can interfere with getting into college or getting scholarships, landing a job, renting a house or building a good credit score, said Laur. With a quick web search, college-admissions officers and prospective employers can easily find descriptions of a night on the town or pictures of kids passed out drunk.

“When I was in high school, if I did something stupid, it was forgotten in two weeks,” said Laur. Today everything lives on in social media.

Most students found the assembly enlightening, and many kids and adults promptly went home and covered the cameras on their computers with tape to avoid being watched.

“It was really scary to see how easily he could get into social media and know everything about you,” said one sixth-grader. But another said he already knew everything Laur talked about.

Parents found the session illuminating. “Both of my girls (7th & 12th grade) came home talking about his presentation and it fostered further conversations at home. My 7th grader INSISTED that I go to his presentation and I am so glad I did,” said Jennifer Elden, who attended the evening forum, in an email.

“I knew there were gaps in my knowledge, but I didn’t realize how many there were,” said parent Leesa Linck after the session. “Kids are so vulnerable to predators — there are so many ways to track their online presence.”

But another parent said her son was confident that his knowledge about technology would keep him safe. “He’s protective of his online use and thinks he can handle it — and he thinks his parents are stupid, techwise,” she said.

Continuing his list of ominous possibilities, Laur told of people who have been fined tens of thousands of dollars for illegally downloading songs. Pedophiles use the camera on a computer or phone to ogle kids in their bedrooms or bathrooms. Someone’s identity can be stolen — as can items in their home if they broadcast travel plans. “Personal information is the currency of the underground economy,” said Laur.

While Laur ticked off the countless ways malicious people can hijack a phone or a computer, he was quick to point out the virtues of the digital world. The same software that can be exploited also enables kids to produce sophisticated videos or music and to share writing or science projects with people around the world, he said.

The majority of kids are good digital citizens, said Laur. But because so many people take advantage of the Internet, it’s easy to land on a pornography site — entirely by accident, he said.

Tech-savvy attitude

Some kids took the message about the seamy underside of the digital world to heart, but others were confident they are knowledgeable enough to avoid these traps. And while most found Laur likable and persuasive, others were more dubious.

“He was a very good inspirational speaker, but I think he was bluffing. Anyone who can go from crying to laughing that quickly is bluffing,” said Cole Darwood, a student at the Independent Learning Center (ILC). Still, Darwood was concerned that everything you do online lasts forever.

“The information creeped me out,” said Darwood’s classmate Janie McMillan. “I should probably start reading the agreement when you download an app.”

By the day after the assembly, most students at the ILC had changed the privacy settings on their phones. Parents also quickly retooled their settings. “I learned that my Facebook and Instagram accounts were not as private as I thought they were and he helped me navigate that,” said Elden.

“It was surprising and alarming that everything is not deletable — once it’s on there, it’s on there,” said ILC student Corydon Goodman.

“I look at it from the employer’s side,” said Goodman’s classmate Courtney Smith. “If people are working for you, they represent you — they don’t want people to see you partying, taking drugs or being stupid.”

“Lots of people do post things like that, because it’s funny if you see people passed out,” said a classmate.

Different apps are popular with different age groups. ILC students said they use Instagram and Snapchat many times a day, but are on Facebook only every week or two. Part of the appeal of apps like Instagram and Snapchat is the promise that any text or photo you send will disappear in seconds, but Laur described ways people have found to capture these images before they vanish. And the messages are always accessible to law enforcement, he said.

While Laur talked about kids who are dangerously addicted to their phones, some students said they have no trouble going without them. “I broke my phone and was happy about it. I don’t want to get it fixed — it’s a waste of time and money,” said one.

Health risks

Careless phone use also poses health risks, said Laur. Kids get injured when texting while driving (already illegal) — or even while walking. The glow from phones (and the beep of incoming text messages) interferes with a good night’s sleep. Some research suggests that phones emit harmful radio frequencies, he said.

Many kids use their phones as alarm clocks, but they also want to be sure they don’t miss anything overnight. “I keep it under my pillow,” said one high school student. “That way, if it rings, you don’t have to move.”

In addition to the dire warnings, Laur gave students and parents practical suggestions for protecting their privacy and taking advantage of the many benefits of phones. The ability for a phone to track your location can be helpful in an emergency, he said.

He recommended parents keep a list of user names and passwords — not on their phone or computer, but in a safe place — in case there is a need to get into a phone to help locate a child, for example.

The information prompted Linck, a pediatrician, to say she would ask about phone use when she does well-child visits, particularly when a child has problems falling asleep.

Craig Herlihy, the parent of a sixth-grader, acknowledged that he is in the minority — he doesn’t have a cell phone and uses his computer only for research, email and word processing. “My life is not that complicated — I don’t want to be plugged into my phone 24/7. That’s why I have an answering machine,” he said. Herlihy’s 11-year-old son doesn’t have a cell phone either, and hasn’t asked for one.

Herlihy welcomed Laur’s important recommendation about keeping the computer or smartphone in a public space in the house, instead of in a child’s bedroom, so you know it’s not being misused or interfering with a child’s sleep.

Help with emotional issues

Laur’s focus on keeping kids safe and healthy covers not only on online issues, but also the painful real-life experiences of teens who feel ostracized by their peers or are grappling with mental health issues. He talked about what he calls “digital peer aggression” (often referred to as “cyberbullying”), which can exacerbate underlying mental health issues and put kids at risk of self-harm or suicidal thoughts. He also shared the story of his own emotional difficulties as a teen.

Laur offered direct help, from a step-by-step guide to privacy settings for a phone to personal invitations for any kids struggling with depression to call him directly.

“It was a lot of new information for me, as a parent and a teacher,” said sixth-grade teacher Tyler Slostad. “There were things I didn’t want to think about, from the silly and ridiculous to the awful and terrifying.”

“I’m thankful my mom doesn’t let me have a phone,” said one sixth-grader. “Now I understand why.”


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