A Nebraska high-school football player was handcuffed and eventually charged with terroristic threats after he tweeted threatening comments about an opposing team’s player from the locker room at halftime.
A student spent Christmas break in jail after an incident in Fremont in which he posted a Snapchat photo of a gun (which later was found to be a toy gun) with the message, “You may not want to be in school today.”
In Missouri, a dad was jailed after naked photos of his son’s girlfriend ended up on the family’s shared photo file. This case was decided in the same circuit court as Nebraska cases are tried.
Karen Haase, an attorney with KSB School Law, shares these stories with parents and students at assemblies across Nebraska so they are aware of the consequences of social media bullying or threats and to encourage parents to be aware of what their children are doing online and on their smartphones.
Karen and her partners at KSB School Law focus on representing public school districts and related entities in these types of cases. Karen, who is originally from Kearney, taught high school and college prior to becoming a lawyer.
“My goal is to convince you that we as parents need to step up and get involved in our kids’ lives online,” Haase tells parents. She cites a quote from Kevin Hunnicut that describes today’s digital world:
“Our kids are growing up on a digital playground with no adult on duty.”
What can parents do to help their children navigate the social media world, avoid getting thrown in jail, having their kids expelled or hurt by cyberbullies?
Here are five great tips to help parents supervise or navigate the digital playground with their kids:
Download and learn to use Snapchat. Karen said Snapchat is now the most popular social media channel and mode of communication for kids. Parents should download the app and learn how to use it to protect and guide their kids. Be sure to discuss the importance of kids setting their Snapchat profile to the “ghost mode.” Otherwise, friends and strangers can see exactly what kids are doing – down to the tiniest details, such as if they are sleeping, listening to music or traveling.
Model appropriate social media behavior. Karen shares the story of a friend who was belittling her ex-husband on Facebook. Karen, in an effort to be a good role model, responded to the Facebook rant with, “Maybe this isn’t the right place for this discussion.” Although her friend blocked her on Facebook after that, Karen said she was glad that she set an example because her kids were watching.
“When is the last time your kid saw you say to someone, I don’t think Facebook is the place to complain about the pastor or your job?” Karen said.
Parents can also model ways to be supportive on social media, such as posting encouraging comments and celebrating successes.
Repeatedly talk to your kids about the dangers of sexting. Sexting is the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photos electronically, primarily between smartphones.
Karen said that 57 percent of students (ages 7-12) say they have already been asked to send a nude image. Thirty-nine percent said they have received sexually suggestive messages meant to go to someone else. Karen said parents may think sexting is a college problem, but it’s already a problem for elementary and middle school students.
She has seen sexting cases with children as young as 10, and therefore she recommends parents start talking to kids about the dangers of sexting in third grade.
Karen gave three examples of specific sexting cases in Nebraska:
- A predator in Aurora had convinced a girl in Broken Bow to send him nude photos by posing as another teen. He was actually a 30-something adult predator who had talked a girl into sending him nude photos.
- A man living near the school in Fairbury was caught being part of a national sexting ring.
- In Grand Island, a predator posing as a 15-year-old boy tried to entice a middle school girl into sending him nude photos. When the girl reported it, the State Patrol took control of her account, and the predator was arrested.
“I don’t want you to think this stuff doesn’t happen here,” she said.
Karen said the laws on sending nude photos are strict in Nebraska because they are intended to stop predators from preying on children. But that also means that if a 12-year-old girl takes a photo of herself in her bra and underwear in the bathroom mirror and sends it to someone, she has committed a Class 3 Felony. And, the person who receives it, even if they have not requested it and don’t know it’s coming, may also be charged with a Class 3 Felony.
Karen said that in Nebraska, 76 county attorneys have charged children with a crime involving sexting. The vast majority of the kids in those cases enter plea agreements and end up in pre-trail diversion programs.
Understand the consequences of cyber bullying. Karen said bullying is officially defined as “any unwanted, aggressive behaviors by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”
All Nebraska schools have anti-bullying policies and are empowered to respond if the bullying occurs on school property or in a school vehicle, Karen said. Consequences may include short or long-term suspension, expulsions, transfers to another school or criminal charges.
She encouraged parents who believe their kids are being bullied online to first communicate the issue with school officials, even if the bullying didn’t occur at school. Karen said school officials can still impose punishments (although not as strict) for continued bullying (calling someone fat, ugly, etc.) that doesn’t occur specifically on school grounds. Schools officials are required by federal law to take action if a student is specifically targeted because of his or her disability, gender or race.
Karen also makes sure that kids and parents understand that anyone who initiates or is involved in a group text or Snapchat group message is liable for anything that is sent in the group. Each person in the group can be charged with crimes related to cyberbullying or sexting, even if he or she does not respond.
Be aware of dangerous Apps. Karen advised parents to be aware of all the apps that children download on their phones or computers. She said an app that looks like a calculator (The Private Photos Calculator% and not the calculator that came installed on the phone). Once a code is entered into the calculator app, a secret photo album can be accessed. Kids are using these apps to hide photos from parents and school officials.
Some apps have two passwords that need to be entered to see the secret files. One password may bring up appropriate photos, while a second password leads to inappropriate photos. Some apps will even take a photo of the person who is trying to unlock the app.
Other apps that kids should avoid include (according to Smart Social) are Finstagram, Jott Messenger, AfterSchool, Ask.fm, The Blue Whale Challenge, BurnBook, Sahara, and Yellow App, which is now called Yubo and is similar to the dating app called Tinder.
Karen said that while social media has many great benefits (she cited statistics that since the iPhone was released, there has been a decline in teen drinking, death by car accidents and teen pregnancy), it’s important for parents to be involved and help kids navigate the dangers.
Karen gave the following resources for parents who want more information on these subjects: www.commonsensemedia.org and smartsocial.com, which includes videos for parents to learn about apps that are popular with kids and teens. (We loved the one titled, “What is Snapchat? A Parent Guide.”)