Saturday February 16, 2013

LENOX -- The Internet, especially social media, poses potential risks and even dangers for children and teenagers unless parents monitor Web use diligently and discuss the pitfalls with their youngsters.

That was the clarion call for parental vigilance delivered by Robert W. Kinzer III, the county’s second assistant district attorney and head of the computer crime unit, to about 40 adults at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School for a forum on Internet safety this past week.

School Superintendent Edward W. Costa III described Kinzer’s presentations as "what every parent, grandparent, administrator -- everybody needs to know because the technology is advancing at such a rapid paceŠ It’s unbridled power, and our youngsters can run circles around all of us."

"Technology is in every part of our lives, it’s not going to go away, it’s only going to get bigger," Kinzer said. "It starts to take over that aspect of our life that centers on morality and it becomes more difficult for younger kids to appreciate the difference between right and wrong, between appropriate and inappropriate."

He noted that young people are bombarded by information constantly from media, affecting the way people have relationships -- such as online boyfriends and girlfriends who have never met in person.

"We can’t just turn our kids loose on the Internet and tell them ‘good luck,’ " Kinzer said. "We need to be having conversations with them about the smart way to do this and the consequences for not doing it the right way.


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He cited potential "stranger danger" from sex offenders and predators online, but stressed that greater risks to young people come from people they know -- "they’re going to be bullied, harassed, teased, taunted, picked on in some way."

However, Kinzer said, "by far the biggest risks kids face come from themselves, their inability to appreciate the consequences of their actions, of engaging in inappropriate behavior online. That’s going to affect where you’re going to go to school, what job you’re going to get, your ability to keep your job, it could result in your being charged with a crime, or going to jail, or having to register as a sex offender. It’s going to affect your ability to make relationships with other people as you grow up."

The prosecutor pointed out that "college admissions officers Google the names of applicants and can see Facebook pictures of youngsters drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana. Furthermore, adults are losing jobs every day because of pictures they’ve put online or are being denied jobs because of their online reputation."

Kinzer, the father of a son, 7, and a daughter, 4, affirmed that he embraces technology.

"I think social media are fantastic, all of you should have a Facebook page, you should use it, you should use Skype, Twitter, you should have cellphones, netbooks, laptops and tablets. But I want to make sure we’re teaching our kids about the dangers and about using these in a responsible way."

Focusing on Facebook, with 1 billion users worldwide (200 million in the U.S.), Kinzer said the site has stored 90 billion photo uploads as the top photo-sharing site in the world with 6 million new uploads each day.

"People are posting pictures of what they eat, where they are, what they’re wearing or not wearing, who they’re with, how they’re behaving," he went on. "That’s how our kids are communicating with each other."

At least 600 million Facebook members use mobile devices primarily, the assistant DA reported, including youngsters who take photos constantly and upload them for anyone to access.

"Pictures are forever, they’re not going to magically disappear because you’ve deleted them. They’re going to be found, recovered and they’re going to pop up again," Kinzer said, with potentially dire consequences for college admission and employment.

Despite Facebook’s minimum age of 13 for users, Kinzer told his listeners that an estimated 7.5 million are younger, including 5.5 million under 10 even though the site requires an email address and a valid birth date.

"Any 10-year-old can do that, get an email account and put in a birth date that makes you over 13," he said. Kinzer also criticized parents who permit youngsters under 13 to sign up for Facebook.

For parents, constant communication should include ongoing dialogue, clear boundaries, specific limits, rules and close monitoring, he maintained. "You must do all of these things in conjunction with each other."

Of prime importance is familiarity with privacy settings on Facebook in order to restrict access to actual rather than unknown "friends."

"It’s very dangerous to start sharing pictures, addresses, photos, personal information with people you’ve never met," Kinzer said, citing statistics showing 57 percent of youngsters acknowledged having Facebook "friends" that they don’t know in person.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter:@BE_cfanto

Resources for parents Š

The following websites are
recommended by Berkshire County Second Assistant District Attorney Robert W. Kinzer III to help families navigate the hazards of social media:

n www.socialmediacouple.com: A family Facebook "contract" for parents and young people, offering ground rules, commitments from parent and "non-negotiable kid rules." Also, guidelines for social media uses.

n www.cyberbullying.us: Internet and cellphone usage "contracts" and commitments from the Cyberbullying Research Center.

n www.netsmartz.org: Educational resource explores various Internet safety topics.

n www.wiredsafety.org. A variety of online safety topics and guidance.