In a recent interview, Annette Stevenson and Jerry Mitchell, an outreach specialist with the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, discuss some of the challenges occurring in social media and online spaces and the programs offered by the attorney general’s office. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: With students’ time online increased substantially during the past few months due to school closures, what precautionary measures does the attorney general’s office recommend related to students and online safety?
A: Students are spending more time online nowadays. They’re communicating with a lot more people, people they know and a lot more people they don’t know. They have to remember the basic elements or tenets of online cyber safety. If you wouldn’t speak to strangers out on the street, you still shouldn’t speak to strangers online. There are a lot of bad people out there, bad actors and predators who prey on kids. A lot of our young minds think “Well, I’m home, I’m safe, I’m in my house. Nothing can bother me or touch me.” But these folks have a way of getting into their homes and into their minds and basically manipulating these young minds.
So, they have to remember not to talk to strangers online. Stranger danger is still very real. If you wouldn’t talk to a stranger at a grocery store, at a park or just in your own neighborhood, you still shouldn’t go online and talk to this person. If they offer you some sort of a gift, candy, free demos, or tell you to meet them somewhere, you still shouldn’t meet them or do anything like that or give them any personal information. Keep that stuff locked up. Make sure that you don’t give out any photos or any information about where you’re going to be at in the future. These things are still very real. These rules apply to our young minds and everyone.
Q: Are there any new or different risks for young people on any of those platforms that you mentioned like TikTok or YouTube?
A: Actually, one of the bigger risks is a dollar-and-cents value, because now a lot of these apps allow you to exchange and transfer money. So, you could have somebody try to coax somebody out of money or try to get them to buy something that they think they’re getting and they may not be getting anything. So, the financial side of it has really come into play with a lot of apps nowadays.
That’s something I’ve seen develop. I’ve been in this industry as a tech expert since 1994. I’ve watched this industry morph, develop and change shapes. Now, not only can you communicate with someone, can you see someone – whether it’s Zoom or whether it’s Duo or whatever you’re using – but you can also say, “Hey, listen, I need a few bucks. Hey, could you send me a few bucks?” And just like that you can transfer money to someone in an instant.
Q: So, bullying is a huge topic and has been for some time in the student space. Online bullying is also something that’s been talked about for a while and impacts students in and out of the school. You talked earlier about the risk, even when a child or a youth is at home, that there still can be danger that reaches them in that space. Bullying can reach students in their home. What do you think are some of the warning signs that students might be experiencing bullying? How would you advise families and teachers to look for those warning signs?
A: When bullying occurs, it really creates a shutdown scenario with a kid where they go through stages. First, there is fear and shock then hopefully they try to get away from it and hope it goes away. After that they can take different directions. When a kid’s mood suddenly changes from happy-go-lucky to withdrawn, you can tell something happened. If they haven’t gone anywhere and they’ve been spending time on the internet, then you pretty much know whatever happened probably involved the internet or a text message or something of that nature. So, those are the early telltale signs. They’re lashing out or they’re talking about getting even with someone.
We recommend parents monitor what their kids are doing online, ask questions. You are your child’s overseer. So, ask questions about what is going on, who they are talking to, if they are using vulgar or harmful language, and if they are receiving pornographic images or language of sorts, things that make them feel uncomfortable.
If they’ve received something that makes them feel uncomfortable, let them know that they should tell you what’s going on immediately. Most of the time kids don’t want to talk to parents because they see the mom and dad as big, mean and ugly. They make the rules and they usually hand out the discipline. So, they get fearful to talk to mom and dad. As parents, a lot of us understand that. So, just try to take steps and tactics to talk to them. One of those tactics or steps to talk to them is get them out the house, take them for a ride, go visit a store or grab food. Get away from the screen time and while you’re away, try to talk to them. Getting out of the house changes the dynamic and keeps that communication going.
Q: So, if a child confides in a parent or teacher, what’s the right next step if something is destructive going on, whether it’s bullying, threats or something else?
A: Well, what is going on will determine the step. Let’s just say, for example, it’s a bullying situation where their child is the bully. If your child says, “Well, I said something to somebody and they got mad at me. And then I said something to somebody else. And then I did this and now I’ve got people calling me names all because I said something.” Then someone basically called them out and said, “No, you shouldn’t have done that.” That’d be a good time to help them to understand why they shouldn’t do that. You could say something like, “This is why you should apologize. This is why you should let folks know that you did something and here is how you’re trying to make it right.” Parents can encourage their children to take the wheel and let their child know, “Hey, listen, here are the dangers to doing that. Here’s all that, you’ve heard all the information. You’ve heard the presentations; you’ve heard different people speak on it. Now you’re getting a life lesson for why you shouldn’t do that.”
We really, really hope the parents don’t encourage them to create a moral hazard type scenario where the kid was a bully and a parent protects by downplaying their actions and protecting them from any person who would call them out. There comes a point where you have to let a child know that they did something wrong.
On the flip side of that, if a kid is being bullied or threatened, we encourage parents to get all the information they can from their kid. If there’s any online traffic that has basically led to this, or if there’s any online documents or any language online, we recommend compiling as much as you can and calling your local police, definitely if it’s a threat; a threat only needs to happen one time.
Defining what bullying is – if it was one time and someone said, “Oh, I don’t like your hair, or I don’t like your sneakers.” That’s not going to be a bullying situation. If it’s happening multiple times and it keeps happening, you can also call Safe2Say or go online to Safe2Say, which is our office governors, and report that to us. Then, we can sit back and get in contact with law enforcement, especially if it’s happening in a school environment, camp environment, something of that nature. The Safe2Say program is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So that’s an extremely good avenue to take to report it.
Safe2Say is also anonymous. One of the things that I like to remind our young minds about, because I’ve heard over and over again that it’s snitching, is that it’s about safety. What if your brother, sister, cousin, best friend, mother or father were going to be in harm’s way or going to get hurt? Would you consider that snitching? No, that’s safety.
Q: Where can listeners learn more about the programs that are offered by the Office of Public Engagement? Where can they find more on this topic?
A: If you go onto our website at attorneygeneral.gov and scroll to the Office of Public Engagement, you can click on that link. It’s going to show you the different regions where a specialist governs. I am Central Pennsylvania. So, from Fulton County over to Lancaster County and then all the way up to Montour. You have an outreach specialist in Philadelphia, the Pittsburgh area, State College area. So, we have different specialists all over the state making sure this message gets out.