Knowing the Consequences: Teaching Youth about Cyber Safety

This article is made possible by a partnership with the Marion County Commission on Youth. Indy with Kids is proud to support the work of MCCOY and help communicate information that is important for the youth of our community.

Written by Jacie Farris

As technology becomes more engrained in our daily lives, parents have greater responsibility to teach their kids about cyber safety.

“The thing that makes youth more vulnerable to cyberbullying and/or dangerous digital materials is simply access,” said Andrea Kamwendo, an adolescent health educator for LifeSmart Youth. “Youth are far more connected to social media and the internet now more than ever. A recent study done by Common Sense Media…shows that 89 percent of teens ages 13-17 have their own smartphones. The study found that 81 percent of teens use social media, and 38 percent of those teens say they use it multiple times an hour. This constant access to each other and the world beyond allows for access to dangerous and/or inaccurate material and people they do not know personally, and it makes it more difficult to get reprieve from any bullying they might experience at school.”

LifeSmart Youth has been serving youth for 75 years, administering programs like “Step Up for Kindness” to prevent bullying and “Cyber Safe in Cyberspace” to teach adults best practices for guiding their young ones through safe social media and internet usage.

“Young people need to understand that for all the benefits of online access, there may be just as many drawbacks,” said Kamwendo. “Often, youth do not consider the risk they are taking when ‘friending’ someone or allowing someone to ‘follow’ them that they do not personally know. Child predators are becoming increasingly savvier at using these online platforms while young people think they are invincible.”

Kristen Martin, a juvenile community prosecutor in the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, said that “it is not uncommon that children will tell us that they are friends with, follow or chat with individuals that are strangers to them. It is important to engage children in a conversation about digital strangers and what is appropriate information to share and what is not. It’s important to remember [that] when you post to the internet, you no longer control that information or how far it goes or reaches.”

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office provides a free program called “Project Cybersafe,” which focuses on identifying cyberbullying behavior and its consequences, while also highlighting the potential dangers of social media. This program has impacted 50,000 students in Marion County since its start in 2011.

To stop cyberbullying and other online dangers, Martin suggests that adults caring for youth should “continue to engage students in meaningful conversations about digital communications and online safety. Have a clear reporting procedure for bullying. Most students report to us that they are most comfortable reporting bullying in a school setting when they can remain anonymous or report electronically. The more barriers there are to reporting, the less likely victims and bystanders will make reports. Make sure you provide services and support to not just the victims of bullying but also the perpetrators.”

Kamwendo agreed, saying, “Any adult who works with, is related to or is somehow connected to youth has an important role in being aware of how youth use the Internet, educating them about online safety and making sure they are accessing appropriate and accurate information. It is necessary to be honest with them and to let them know it is important to be open about the things they see happening or come across…. The key thing is for youth to feel like they aren’t going to immediately get in trouble for reporting something that they see or might be involved in online. The fear of being in trouble or disappointing someone, or assuming the adult won’t understand, is often what prevents a young person from speaking up.”

Martin would like teens to “remember their words have meaning, their words have power and their words have consequences. It sounds simple, but treat people the way you would like to be treated and don’t assume that your words will not be taken seriously or hurt someone.”

According to Kamwendo, “teens can prevent cyberbullying by learning more about it and having open conversations about its effects on a person, group of people and even their community. As adults, we need to empower youth to speak up when they know something is happening that is hurtful to another person.”

Kamwendo and Martin encourage parents to teach their kids how to use online media safely and to educate themselves on cyber safety issues. They recommend the following resources:

“As parents we have to model the behavior we expect from our children, from our own media use to our social networking behaviors to our screen time,” said Martin. “Do not isolate your child from technology; teach them how to use it responsibly. Do not let your child play a game or have a social media account if you are not using it as well. This will help engaging your child in conversation about items of concern as they happen. Knowing the features of all the apps and their capabilities will help in monitoring their devices as well. Teaching cyber safety should start as soon as a child is introduced to technology. Establishing clear boundaries and realistic consequences is critically important.”

Kamwendo said that “parents and other trusted adults should teach youth about cyber safety in the same way they would teach them about physical safety. If you tell a child to avoid strangers in person or to treat people with kindness, that same advice can translate to the cyber world. As children get older and become teenagers, it is important to remember that they can handle realistic, honest information. The more honest and open they feel the adult is being, the more likely they are to turn to that same adult when they need help or have questions.”

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