Keeping kids safe over the Internet

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Connecticut - posted Fri., Nov. 15, 2013
Ryan Halligan committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 13, after relentless bullying for several years both in person and online. Contributed photo. - Contributed Photo

Ryan Halligan was just 13 years old when he committed suicide on Oct. 7, 2003. Ryan’s father, John, describes him as “a sweet, gentle and lanky 13-year-old fumbling his way through early adolescence and trying to establish his place in the often confusing and difficult social world of middle school.” Ryan had been bullied since the fifth grade. And it was discovered only after his death the extent to which online bullying, or cyberbullying, had contributed to the teen’s torment.

Cyberbullying has been discussed in connection with several teen deaths close to home - the suicide deaths, six weeks apart, of two Enfield girls in 2011, and the suicide of a 15-year-old Greenwich boy after the first day of his sophomore year in high school in August of this year. Even when the consequences aren't as dire, cyberbullying causes pain for its victims. On Nov. 14, it was revealed that several students involved in a cyberbullying incident at Manchester High School had been suspended, and potentially faced expulsion. Reportedly the boys posted messages on Facebook and Twitter, naming dozens of girls from the high school and making obscene claims about their sexual activity. One of the victims, 17-year-old Sabrina Jennings, said she felt humiliated by the incident.

The Manchester school district and others in Connecticut have adopted a zero tolerance for cyberbullying, and we can expect tighter controls to follow. People like John Halligan, for whom the attention is coming too late, have turned personal tragedy into a message of hope by helping other young people avoid the fate of Ryan and others who have been harassed to despair.

Halligan and his wife, Kelly, helped to spearhead a bully prevention law in Vermont that holds schools much more accountable in preventing and responding to online harassment.  They worked closely with I-Safe America to raise awareness about cyberbullying and the severe emotional impact it can have on a young person. They’ve spread their story through national media sources. And John has dedicated his life to visiting as many schools as possible to share Ryan’s story. He has spoken in local schools numerous times, recently appearing at three different Connecticut locations in one day.

Part of Halligan’s message involves asking bystanders to get involved. “I want every young person in this room that… is a bystander, to make a commitment that from this point on… you’re not going to just stand by and laugh,” he said to a group of young people sitting in a darkened auditorium. But Halligan also has a message for parents. He doesn’t blame the school for failing to protect his son. “We, as Ryan’s parents, should have done a better job,” he said. “We should have not allowed the computer to be in his bedroom. We should have restricted time on the computer.  We should have monitored the computer.”

The Internet can be a wonderful resource for our children. Online, they can gain access to a wealth of information and new experiences. They can use the Internet for school work, to communicate with friends and teachers and to play interactive games. But the Internet can also expose them to dangers in addition to bullying, dangers such as exploitation by strangers. Parents need to be aware of their children’s online activities, and help protect them as much as possible.

Scott Driscoll is an Internet safety expert. Retiring from Connecticut law enforcement after more than 21 years, Driscoll began teaching elementary school children about the dangers of the Internet. Through his company, Internet Safety Concepts, Driscoll has also developed programs for middle school students, high school students and parents. Driscoll’s top message to parents looking to protect their children from Internet hazards is to use technology safely.

“Technology is going to be around for a long time and continue to grow,” he said. “When we use apps and programs we should be aware of what they do and how they can expose us to strangers or create a digital footprint in a negative way.  Almost every app or program has positive and negative aspects. We need to make sure we focus on the positive and use them in a safe manner.”

According to Driscoll, currently Kik, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are the top five most popular sites with young people. He encourages parents to become familiar with these sites. A general rule of thumb, though, is to coach children never to approve follow requests from people they don’t know. Kids should be encouraged to think carefully about photos uploaded to the Internet.

“If a child geo tags a photo and allows strangers to follow them, then strangers can get the locations of where children upload their photos from,” said Driscoll.  Kids need to be reminded how quickly information can be shared, and that if the people using the programs do not use them with safety in mind “they can allow the wrong people access into their lives,” said Driscoll.

Scott Leslie, principal at RHAM High School in Hebron, said that teachers and administrators have taken steps to help keep children safe at school. “We have presented a number of programs to students regarding Internet safety and bullying prevention,” he said.  “Both of these programs address the issue of using technology safely and the importance of not engaging in mean on-line behaviors.” Any issues that are brought to the attention of administration are dealt with immediately, said Leslie, in order to stop or minimize any inappropriate on-line behaviors.  “Also students, or any visitors, only have access to a safe, filtered on-line network when they use the school's network,” he said.

Paul Newton, principal of Enrico Fermi High School in Enfield, emphasizes the difficulty of keeping up with ever-changing Internet technology. “Every day another social media site seems to emerge and the most popular social media vehicles also frequently change,” he said. “We have seen students go from using MySpace to now using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They also use sources like Snapchat to instantly send photos and messages that virtually disappear within 5 seconds of viewing. The list of electronic media sources is vast and constantly changing.”

While many students use these sites purely for fun, as a means to communicate with friends, “Unfortunately, within every community there are students who make poor choices about how they use electronic media,” said Newton. “School officials work closely with local law enforcement agencies whenever an electronic source is used to threaten or harass someone and it is brought to our attention.  Students and parents alike should be aware that this is a crime and it is not taken lightly by school officials or police officers,” said Newton. “The best thing that parents today can do is to closely monitor all of your children's use of various electronic media.”

“It is almost insane now because parents are giving iPhones to children that are far too young to handle the power of the technology,” said Halligan. “We took the computers out of the bedrooms and replaced the situation now with computers in their pockets that they can take anywhere. It defies common sense. I would be supportive of new laws that would hold parents more accountable,” he said.

For more about Internet safety laws, and specific suggestions for keeping kids safe, and an update of the latest cyberbullying event in Manchester, see part two of this article in next week’s edition of the ReminderNews.

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