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Friday, December 14 , 2018, 9:23 pm | Fair 54º

 
 
 
 

Bill Cirone and Joyce Dudley: Protecting Children Against Cyber Crimes

It takes a community — parents, educators and law enforcement — to help youths understand and avoid the dangers lurking online

A new and very serious threat to the well-being of our children has emerged, and it is one that many parents know little or nothing about: cyber bullying. Its effects can be devastating.

Bill Cirone
Bill Cirone

Thanks to the efforts and interests of the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, in partnership with the county Education Office, local schools were brought up to date on the latest means available for cyber bullying and cyber crimes to take place. The information was shared at a workshop featuring Tracy Webb, senior prosecuting attorney and head of the Cyber Crime and Child Abuse Prevention Division of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.

Webb, whose career mostly focused on prosecuting child abuse cases, explained that child abuse is horrific, but it has a specific time when it ends. That is not the case with cyber bullying. It is unending. Young people are connected via phone and computer all day and all night. The text messages and Facebook entries can be posted 24/7.

We have all read news reports of young suicide victims, bullied into believing life was no longer worth living because of relentless cyber attacks. One can only imagine the ripple effect this has had on the victims, their families and their communities, as well as that of the perpetrators and their universe.

Most young people who take part in cyber bullying do it as a joke, or don’t pause to consider the impacts. Throughout human history, young people have demonstrated they can be mean to each other; but the Internet has provided them with the tools to be truly cruel, Webb explained.

One very effective video shown by Webb featured a perky young blond girl on stage at a middle school assembly, saying into the microphone that her comments were going to be about another young girl in the audience. Her words were awful: She called the girl ugly, criticized her clothes and her family, and said that everyone hated her. The camera cut to the faces of other young people in the audience and the young girl herself, clearly devastated. It was very hard to watch. At the very end, the tagline warned young people, “If you wouldn’t say it to her face, don’t type it online.”

The most recent Healthy Kids Survey in Santa Barbara County pointed out some sobering news: 27 percent of fifth-graders said they have spread mean lies or rumors about other kids at their schools one or more times; 14 percent said they had mean rumors spread about them most or all of the time.

There’s more: 31 percent of seventh-graders and 25 percent of 11th-graders reported they had been harassed or bullied on school property because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability in the past year. Tragically, 26 percent of seventh-graders surveyed reported they stopped doing some usual activities because they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks.

Joyce Dudley
Joyce Dudley

Many parents are simply not up to speed when it comes to social network sites or the online places their children visit. Each day new sites emerge: Google Buzz, Formspring and Chatroulette, in addition to the more common sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Skype.

It’s very common for any young person with a camera phone to take a picture, even an innocuous one, with a friend and upload it to a Facebook page or post it on a site. Parents may be unaware that every picture now has a geo tag, which provides the exact latitude and longitude where the picture was taken. This means that anyone who means harm to young people can find out exactly where they are, just by the geo tag on the picture that is posted. That’s cause for great concern.

This all means that parenting in the age of cyber crimes is more challenging than ever. It might seem like a good idea to give a young child a cell phone, but parents should consider the trade-offs they are making when they do so. Yes, they will be able to stay in touch; but the risk of danger is also present, especially in young children whose judgment and decision-making are not yet fully developed.

Webb admitted there are no easy safeguards in this new and growing area of concern. She urged educators to keep the lines of communication open and keep talking to one another and to parents about what young people are doing.

She said it is particularly important to pay attention to how young people respond to criticism. If they seem to have an especially short fuse, and react quite badly to even mild criticism, it could be a sign that they are experiencing cyber bullying and it is making them much more sensitive to negative statements.

It’s also important to notice any changes in a child’s behavior or patterns, such as a good student not wanting to go to school or an outgoing child becoming withdrawn. Most important, parents must monitor their children’s Internet behaviors and make sure their children know not to frequent the sites that are dangerous. We all have to work together in this area because adults are truly playing catch-up.

Cyber bullying is now both a violation of the Education Code 48900, which can result in a suspension or expulsion from school, as well as a Criminal Act, Penal Code 653.2, which can result in up to one year in county jail and a $1,000 fine.

The District Attorney’s Office, along with law enforcement, has pledged support in this very important area. We welcome the chance to work together to help protect our children from this very real new threat to their well-being.

Click here for a related Noozhawk article on cyber bullying.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools. Joyce Dudley is Santa Barbara County’s district attorney.

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