Protecting youngsters from Internet Predators

The following column appeared a number of APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during February, 2024

Protecting Youngsters from Internet Predators

“I want to acknowledge the survivors of online harms and the families who are here today who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Words cannot begin to express the profound sorrow I feel that a service we designed to bring people happiness and joy has been abused to cause harm.”

That’s part of the statement that Snapchat co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel read in a U.S. Senate hearing on Jan. 31 Find it here.

But Snapchat is not the only social media platform that people are exploiting.

As the Senate hearing showed, parents are pleading for help in defending their youngsters from internet abusers.

Some exploiters ask children and teens to send them pictures that show them partially or totally naked. Then those adults threaten youngsters with public exposure and humiliation.

This terror sadly has led some young people to take their own lives.

Some adults use the internet to sell youngsters illegal drugs. This has led to overdose and death.

Sometimes, youngsters “gang up,”

repeatedly saying terrible things about a peer: a form of cyberbullying.

I’ve written in the past about lawsuits that have been filed by school districts against social media platforms.

Here are three things that families can consider doing.

  1. First, inform yourself, if you’ve not already done so, about the potential dangers, as well as delights, of social media platforms that millions of young people are using. This includes TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, and others.

A free report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (doctors specializing in treating minors) is a good place to start.

The report explains: “A large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones. Because of their limited capacity for self-regulation and susceptibility to peer pressure, children and adolescents are at some risk as they navigate and experiment with social media. Recent research indicates that there are frequent online expressions of offline behaviors, such as bullying, clique-forming, and sexual experimentation, that have introduced problems such as cyberbullying, privacy issues, and ‘sexting.’ Other problems that merit awareness include Internet addiction and concurrent sleep deprivation.”

The report acknowledges: “Social media sites allow teens to accomplish online many of the tasks that are important to them offline: staying connected with friends and family, making new friends, sharing pictures, and exchanging ideas.” The report is available here.

The number of free resources is almost endless. Among the best I’ve found are:

— “Cyberbulling: What Parents Should Know” – published by the Bloomington, Minnesota-based, nationally recognized PACER Center.

— “How to talk to kids about social media” from WebMD – with specific suggestions.

  1. Talk with educators about what they and families can do together. Some districts have held meetings where social media experts offered suggestions and answered questions. They also discussed how schools are helping students understand positive and negative opportunities that the internet offers.
  2. Share your concerns and recommendations with members of Congress. This could be part of conversations with youngsters.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, among others, made clear during that Jan. 31 hearing that this is a high priority issue for her. She described bipartisan legislation she’s working on. Klobuchar has heard from families that someone will ask a youngster for an inappropriate picture. Then the young person will “think they got a new girlfriend, or a new boyfriend. Ruins their life. Or they think it’s going to be ruined, and they kill themselves.” Her committee statement is here.

Senator Klobuchar, courtesy of her office

In 1985, I predicted in a book, “Micro-Myths: Exploring the Limits of Learning with Computers,” that computers would have positive and negative impacts. They are a fact of life. Though youngsters sometimes know more about the internet than adults do, families definitely can help their children make the best possible use of the remarkable cyberworld.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., is co-director of the Center for School Change. He formerly was a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president. Reactions welcome: