SYCAMORE – Are you worried about your children sexting? Cyberbullying? Basically using their phones for any unsavory purposes?
Maybe you don’t know how to start a conversation about it. Sycamore police Sgt. Joe Meeks does.
“Call me,” he said. “If you’re having trouble with it, I don’t.”
Although Meeks recently was promoted to sergeant in the patrol division, he continues to be determined to educate children, and their parents, about the dangers of social media.
“Can we get to the kids before they make that one mistake ... ‘I think he or she likes me, so OK I’ll just send this picture,’ “ Meeks said. “There’s millions of child abuse images out there, and anything we can do to stem that flow is what we try to do.”
For two years, Meeks worked as a detective for the Sycamore Police Department. He said the digital age has “enveloped us,” and that it will only get more intense from here.
In the past few years, that overwhelming presence has sparked changes in how area schools approach issues with students online.
“We were having a lot of problems,” Sycamore High School Principal Tim Carlson said. “Kids [were] getting in trouble with things on social media, in terms of sexting. Kids [were] saying mean things to each other on social media and hiding behind a screen.”
Administrators created a Digital Citizenship Committee in 2016 and created a campaign to remind students that the photos, comments and videos they posted online had effects. Since then, online safety reminders have become common practice.
DeKalb School District 428 also has a Digital Citizenship program that adapts to each grade level. At Clinton Rosette Middle School, it is incorporated into everyday classes.
“Even when we’re talking about things like kindness and bullying and conflict resolution, there’s always a cybercomponent,” said Robin Enders, one of the school’s counselors. “They’re growing up with this technology, so they need to understand both the benefits and the consequences of what they’re doing.”
Although teachers and administrators hope that being proactive has helped stanch the flow of inappropriate online behavior, they recognize students also may be improving in the ways they hide it from both teachers and parents.
“Parents really want to believe their kids when their kids say they closed all their accounts,” said Jen Gammelgaard, another counselor at Clinton Rosette. “They don’t necessarily realize their kid has three open accounts or that they’ve opened one in another name.”
Meeks, Carlson, Enders and Gammelgaard mentioned the same smartphone applications that continue to cause the majority of issues – Snapchat and Instagram. Kik Messenger, Facebook Messenger and Musical.ly occasionally pop up, as well.
“Teen drama” and cyberbullying come across school administrators’ desks most frequently, typically occurring when relationships end or one students verbally attacks another.
But messaging inappropriate photos or posting them to fake Instagram accounts, also known as “finstas,” continues to cause problems.
“You have friends, then you have people you know and people you know of,” said Meeks, who is affiliated with the Illinois Attorney General’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “If you have 3,000 friends, or followers on Snapchat or Instagram, those aren’t your friends. We need to be mindful of what we’re putting out there.”
Meeks and school administrators agree that parents are a vital factor in ensuring children are good digital citizens, and they need to be engaged.
“We started, when we were younger, giving our kids mobiles for them to play with,” Meeks said. “Even though there’s not a screen on it, what we don’t realize is we’ve been using devices to entertain our children for years.”
Parents should set ground rules regarding when and how long smartphones and other technology can be used, enable restrictions on children’s phones and look into applications such as Life 360 and TeenSafe to assist them in monitoring.
If parents are uncomfortable restricting applications, they should at least download them on their own devices to know how they work, Enders said.
Commonsensemedia.org and the Illinois attorney general’s website are also good resources, Meeks said. Meeks also invites parents to meet with him and discuss issues they might be facing with their children’s social media use. Meeks can be reached via his desk phone at 815-899-1756, cellphone 815-751-3037 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clinton Rosette also will host an event for parents to learn about online safety and digital citizenship with a representative from the attorney general’s office April 17 at DeKalb High School.