Fourth-graders at River Oaks Elementary School were sailing through a quiz about Internet safety Thursday, until they learned they must be at least 13 years old in order to be on Facebook.
“How many of you have Facebook accounts?” asked Patti Fowler, Internet safety coordinator for the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, to which many students – nowhere near 13 – raised their hands. “That’s not surprising. … but I can tell you with 100 percent certainty it’s not for elementary school children. You’re not missing anything.”
Facebook was just part of Fowler’s Internet safety presentation Thursday morning to third, fourth and fifth graders at St. James Elementary School, then at River Oaks Elementary in the afternoon. As part of the task force, a division of the S.C. Attorney General’s office, Fowler speaks full-time at venues around the state. She informs kids, and people of all ages, about pitfalls online and how to avoid getting into trouble.
“I was in public education for 21 years as a teacher and then a vice principal,” said Fowler, who said that experience comes in handy when relating to kids, such as the 700 middle-schoolers she addressed recently. “I talk to students at all the schools, but I also talk to [Parent Teacher Association] groups, churches and community organizations. I think it’s important to talk to the parents so they know what to expect and can have some strategies.”
Fowler seemed to make a few students uncomfortable as she addressed the ones who have their own Facebook pages. She said some must have registered using a fake birthday, which is both dishonest and breaks Facebook’s rule. She said it also causes Facebook to break the law because the company can’t ask for that information without their parents’ consent.
As for the honest students who used their real birthdays, they shouldn’t get too comfortable, she said. They just haven’t been caught yet.
“Facebook kicks off 20,000 of you a day,” she said.
Fowler stressed what many students said they already know but can’t hear enough, that anything they post is not going to be private – “public and Internet don’t belong in the same sentence” – and once it’s out there, they can’t get it back. She said they have to remember they have no control over where an online post goes or who sees it, and that whatever they post is permanent.
“The Internet is a wonderful tool, and it’s a great resource, but it also presents some risk,” Fowler said.
To help students minimize that risk, Fowler gave them some tips, which correspond with the letters in INTERNET:
• Information about you is private – do not post items such as phone numbers, addresses or, as one student said, secrets.
• Never give your passwords to your best friends or anyone except your parents, who should monitor where you go online.
• Talk with your parents about activities you enjoy on the Internet and their rules for your use. Students said their parents’ rules included not going to Google or YouTube, not clicking on ads (which can trigger viruses or gather information) and telling their parents which websites they are visiting.
• Exchange emails, instant messages and texts only with family and friends you know in real life – it can be just as dangerous to talk to strangers online as it is in person.
• Respect yourself and others in all you do on the Internet – no cyberbullying.
• Never agree to meet in person with someone that you first met on the Internet – if they are over the age of 18, it’s against the law, and parents should be told.
• Exclude inappropriate photos from your posts – everyone in a photo should agree if it is to go online so that no one is hurt or embarrassed.
• Tell your parents about anything on the Internet that makes you feel scared or uncomfortable.
Cassandra Beale, counselor at River Oaks, said when she worked at St. James last year, she had Fowler speak at both a parents night and to students the next day. This year, she collaborated with the counselor at St. James to bring Fowler back to teach safety at both schools, where technology is a fact of life for even the youngest children in child development classes.
“These days, you see 2-year-olds on iPads; it’s just such a part of life,” Beale said. “It’s not going to go away, and students need to be educated so they can make better choices.”