.- 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 todayâs 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 âsexting,â 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 Vaticanâs Pontifical Council for Social Communications last year, Pope Benedict XVI urged all those involved in social media âto 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.â
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 âthe need for respect and kindnessâ 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 âcan be trusted and what information should be challenged.â
âRespect is the big theme of the things I try to do,â 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.
âSometimes the anonymity of technology enables disrespectful behavior in the mind of a teenager,â 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 isnât private
When it comes to the Internet, she has a simple rule: âIf itâs something you think is private, it doesnât go on the World wide Web. You should place there what you want people to know about you.â
Parents need to monitor what sites their child visits and what they post on social networks, she said. âDetermine what is developmentally appropriate,â 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.
âTechnology is a privilege; itâs not a right,â she said. Parents should set parameters for its use, even when the child pays for a cell phone or Internet access. âIf 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.â
Cell phones carry some of the same potential problems as computers â 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 todayâs technology is its speed. âItâs so fast you can do everything with a single button,â she said. But once sent, âthereâs no way to get it back.â
Tamara Napier, whose son, Craig, is a senior at St. Elizabeth, discovered many concerns through Koestnerâs talk last May. âIâm sure I wasnât the only one who did not know,â Napier said. âOur kids are so blessed with all of the technology that is out there. But the things she presented to us, I donât think we would have known without her presentation.â
St. Elizabeth history teacher Dana Delle Donne didnât expect the graduating seniors to get too much from Koestnerâs presentation. âWhen I heard we were going to do something on cyber smarts, Iâm like, these kids have been drilled about this stuff,â Delle Donne said. âBut she told them things we couldnât have, maybe because we didnât know or maybe because we didnât realize.
âShe made them realize that Iâm leaving my safe little environment of high school and thereâs a big old bad world out there and I could get caught up in it if Iâm not careful.â
One of the problems for todayâs 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.
âIf you think about it, you were listening and writing at the same time,â she said, âbut 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 donât have any scientific proof of this, but it almost rewires their brain to think differently.â
Printed with permission from the Dialog, newspaper for the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.