Many children and teenagers return to school this fall with thoughts of text messages, Facebook posts and Twitter alerts dancing in their heads. Those means of connecting in today’s world can trigger headaches or nightmares for parents, teachers and school administrators.
While they recognize the value of new media, more and more of which finds its way into the classroom, adults also are aware of the dangers associated with social networks and other advancements in technology.
Headlines in recent years of new media horror stories spark concern, such as a group of high school students in Pennsylvania involved in “sexting,” or sending nude photos via cell phones, and the suicide of a teenage girl in Missouri after she was cyberbullied.
While less dramatic, photos or comments about inappropriate behavior posted on social networks could cause major problems for young people when they begin to apply for jobs or graduate school.
But properly used, experts and church leaders have pointed out, the Internet, social networks and other media, including cell phones, can help unite people. In a meeting of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications last year, Pope Benedict XVI urged all those involved in social media “to promote a culture of respect for the dignity and value of the human person, a dialog rooted in the sincere search for truth (and) for friendship that is not an end in itself, but is capable of developing the talents of each person to put them at the service of the human community.”
Principals and teachers spend many hours keeping technology current at Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wilmington, said Cathy Weaver, superintendent of schools.
Catholic schools embrace technology and help students understand “the need for respect and kindness” online even when computers and Internet sites give the impression of being distant, detached and impersonal,Weaver said.
In addition to promoting well-mannered interactions online, Catholic schools teach students to make good judgments about what online information “can be trusted and what information should be challenged.”
“Respect is the big theme of the things I try to do,” said Katie Koestner, of Campus Outreach Services, who speaks about the dangers that lurk on the Internet and in society at large in talks to high school and college students, parents and faculty throughout the nation. She spoke last May to parents and seniors at St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, and returned to speak to faculty, students and parents there. She also will speak to parents at Padua Academy on Sept. 13.
“Sometimes the anonymity of technology enables disrespectful behavior in the mind of a teenager,” said Koestner, who lives near Villanova University in Pennsylvania.
She knows the dangers of disrespectful behavior too well.
When she was 18 and attending the College of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., she was raped while on a date. Rather than keeping quiet, she spoke out about the date rape problem, sparking a national discussion so others could avoid negative experiences.
Internet isn’t private
When it comes to the Internet, she has a simple rule: “If it’s something you think is private, it doesn’t go on the World wide Web. You should place there what you want people to know about you.”
Parents need to monitor what sites their child visits and what they post on social networks, she said. “Determine what is developmentally appropriate,” she said, and help the child better understand the technology being used. Parents should use technology-filtering software, which Koestner compared to choosing a movie the child may see.
“Technology is a privilege; it’s not a right,” she said. Parents should set parameters for its use, even when the child pays for a cell phone or Internet access. “If the child is paying for it you might set up a different set of rules, but if your child is a minor he is still under your supervision.”
Cell phones carry some of the same potential problems as computers — inappropriate text messages and videos or photos, and accessing inappropriate information.
But cell phones also carry some other pitfalls, Koestner said, including its use while driving and isolating oneself through its use.
One of the problems with today’s technology is its speed. “It’s so fast you can do everything with a single button,” she said. But once sent, “there’s no way to get it back.”
Tamara Napier, whose son, Craig, is a senior at St. Elizabeth, discovered many concerns through Koestner’s talk last May. “I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did not know,” Napier said. “Our kids are so blessed with all of the technology that is out there. But the things she presented to us, I don’t think we would have known without her presentation.”
St. Elizabeth history teacher Dana Delle Donne didn’t expect the graduating seniors to get too much from Koestner’s presentation. “When I heard we were going to do something on cyber smarts, I’m like, these kids have been drilled about this stuff,” Delle Donne said. “But she told them things we couldn’t have, maybe because we didn’t know or maybe because we didn’t realize.
“She made them realize that I’m leaving my safe little environment of high school and there’s a big old bad world out there and I could get caught up in it if I’m not careful.”
One of the problems for today’s high school parents is that their children have grown up with the technology while parents have not, Delle Donne said. But she is hesitant to say children today multitask better than their parents did in the pen and paper age of high school.
“If you think about it, you were listening and writing at the same time,” she said, “but I think that their mind g oes in so many directions. They could be on the computer texting, watching TV, reading a book and listening to their mom all in the same context.
I don’t have any scientific proof of this, but it almost rewires their brain to think differently.”
Printed with permission from the Dialog, newspaper for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.