“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Many of us may remember these words from the playgrounds of our childhood, a way we used to defend ourselves against the taunts of bullies. Unfortunately, in today’s Internet age, when insults and threats can be sent out instantaneously via any of the interactive technologies used daily by young people, it turns out that words can be just as hurtful and possibly even more dangerous than any physical bullying — sticks and stones or flying fists.
Consider the following texts of messages sent and received by teens in the greater Princeton area:
— I hate you
— You’re such a loser
— You should die
— Congratulations! You’ve been voted ugliest girl
— If you don’t forward this message, someone will come into your room tonight and kill you
“I like to say I’m never surprised by anything but I am surprised at the way things are manipulated online and how creative kids can be with their cruelty,” says Detective Benjamin M. Gering, who specializes in computer-related crimes for the Princeton Township Police Department. “They have the ability to go nationwide, even worldwide, with anything they want through their computers and cell phones. That’s a lot of power loaded in the hands of kids as young as 10, 11, and 12, who may not have the kind of judgment that should go with that kind of power.
Gering and Hester Agudosi, a state deputy attorney general who works extensively on issues of cyber-bullying, are the featured speakers for the educational and parenting lecture series sponsored by CommonGround, a consortium of the parent associations of 12 Princeton area independent schools. The lectures, aimed at parents of children ages pre-K through 12th grade are free and open to the public.
“Cyber-Savvy: Empowering Parents to Protect Their Children” takes place on Thursday, April 2, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Hun School of Princeton. Using actual examples from the greater Princeton area, the speakers will discuss how vulnerable children are online not only to cyber-bullying but also to the dangers of online social networks, inappropriate websites, and predators. The talk is designed to empower parents to monitor their children’s activity, and to know when it is necessary to intervene.
‘Most parents need to understand that their kids know way more about computers than they do and they may not even be aware that their children are in harm’s way,” says Gering, adding that while parents perceive sexual predators as the greatest threat to their children’s safety, there is a more subtle, everyday threat that is more insidious because it can fly under the radar and it comes from their peers. “Back when we were kids, kids might have made harassing phone calls to the house and they might have hung up, but parents would at least hear the phone ring, know about it, and could monitor it. But now, the bullying can be silent and it is often anonymous. It can take place anywhere kids use their cell phones, and anytime they log onto the Internet.”
Gering, who also is a member of the Mercer County Gang Task Force, says that technology has become a popular gang recruiting tool, especially on youth sites like MySpace and Facebook, where kids can declare themselves as a gang member or portray themselves as one, even if they are not. “They can have these little pop-ups that act like an advertisement with colors and sayings. It looks cool so they think, ‘Maybe I should be doing this on MySpace so I can be cooler too.’ So now they are opening themselves up to recruitment or being targeted. It’s going on outside our view, not in the alleyway or the school yard or the home. Now gang members have a way to reach around the state and even out of state either to harass or draw in new members.”
Gering understands the challenge parents have in keeping up with technology. Even for the kind of work he and his colleagues do, he admits it is a huge task to stay on top of the new ways technology is being used to commit crimes, whether it is gang recruitment, cyber-bullying, and so on. He says networking with other law enforcement agencies and experts who specialize in computer forensics has been tremendously helpful. “We receive specific training in that area. One of our other challenges is prosecuting these kinds of crimes that are often viewed by the defendants as victimless. They can’t see their victim’s face or their reactions, so the fact that it’s a crime doesn’t seem real to them.”
Gering has been with the Princeton Township Police Department for almost 10 years, after serving as a police office in Fieldsboro in southern New Jersey. He grew up in Ewing Township, and attended the College of New Jersey and then Thomas Edison State College, where he graduated in 2007. His stepfather was a police officer in Ewing; his father is a psychologist; and his mother is a nurse. Gering grew up with one brother and four brothers who all had an interest in and talent for computers, so using computers for police research and as a tool for investigation came naturally to him.
Gering offers these recommendations to parents for whom grasping the technology necessary to monitor their children’s cyber-activity doesn’t come so easily:
Have an open conversation with your kids about using technology responsibly and safely. “Kids have a huge sense of privacy,” says Gering, “but parents need to have an open conversation about computer use, just as they do about alcohol and drugs, and their kids also need to know they can have an open conversation when they need it. Some parents make an agreement with their children that is similar to the kind of agreement they may make about picking them up when they are drunk. The promise is that they will not be punished, because they would rather have them safe.”
Install monitoring software — and use it. “Think of it like a burglar alarm. It’s great if you have a house alarm, but if you don’t use it, it won’t do anything. Parents tend to use their monitoring equipment for a little while, and they drop off on using it. If your kid has been in his room for hours, you would knock on the door and ask, hey, is everything okay. Monitoring software allows you to knock on that online bedroom, so to speak, and do a quick check.” These programs also make it easier for law enforcement to investigate missing persons or runaway children.
Keep the computers out in an open space in your house. “Don’t let your kids keep their computers and laptops in their bedrooms, so you never have the opportunity to look over their shoulder. You should be doing that.”
Remind your children not to say something online that they wouldn’t say to someone’s face. “When you tease someone on the playground, it’s over, done, and your victim can’t relive that moment. Online, someone can forward an insult, re-post it, and send it out far and wide, and the victim of the bullying has to relive that same fear and anxiety every time it comes back up. They can’t escape it.”
Gering says that there is no doubt that technology is convenient and powerful, but with the good comes the bad. “It’s a part of today’s reality, and it helps if everybody, especially parents, are more aware of the situation. We have to protect our children against it a little bit better.”
“Cyber-Savvy: Empowering Parents to Protect Their Children,” CommonGround, the Hun School, Edgerstoune Road, Princeton. Thursday, April 2, 7 to 9 p.m. Lecture presented by Detective Benjamin M. Gering and state deputy attorney general Hester Agudosi. Register. Free. 609-924-6700 or www.princetoncommonground.org.