When 99 percent of a group of sixth graders under age 13 admits to having either a Snapchat or Instagram social media account, which by law requires an app user to be at least 13 years of age, you quickly understand why Katie Greer does what she does.
Greer, a nationally recognized digital safety expert and member of the Advisory Board for the Internet Keep Safe Coalition (iKeepSafe), has been featured in a number of national newspapers, magazines, and TV news stations.
On Friday, Greer spent the day at Old Rochester Regional High School talking to Tri-Town students in Grades 6-12, and her message was important: Internet technology sure is awesome, but kids must be aware that, much like a fly in a spider web, the worldwide web is a dangerous place for children.
Greer, a former intelligence analyst for the Massachusetts State Police, shifted the focus of her career towards online crime against children after she worked for the Attorney General’s Office in the Internet Crimes Against Children Unit. She said she began by wondering, “What crimes happen online?”
“I was kind of shocked to hear that there was a whole unit devoted to online crime,” said Greer.
As she discovered the darker side of the Internet through her exposure in the unit, she eventually took up the cause, established a speaking program, and has traveled around the country speaking to children and parents about online threats to children.
The title of that talk on Friday was “Tech: Making It Work for You.”
The sixth grade was the youngest of Greer’s audiences that day, around the national average age children are issued their first mobile device of their own. She told them that during her presentations with that age group she often learns just as much from them as they do from her.
The first thing she did was marvel as the positive impact social media has had in the life of the individual and society at large. Just look at Houston Texans football player J.J. Watt who managed to raise over $37 million via a social media campaign to help victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“We all have this ability in this amazing time to do incredible things,” Greer said. “It’s our responsibility every day to think about how we can use technology to make this world a little bit better than it was when we woke up this morning.”
But Greer acknowledged that the rules of technology and social media use are different from household to household; some parents allow their kids to use social media and mobile devices, others don’t allow any unfettered access to the Internet, while others don’t let their kids have any screen time whatsoever at home.
Greer polled her young audience on device and social media use, and the overwhelming majority of them had hands raised during questions such as how many of you have a smartphone, how many of you use social media, and how many of you are under age 13 (all but one).
“Because you have to be at least thirteen to have an Instagram account. This is actually a government regulation and they say, if you’re not at least thirteen years old, you’re not allowed [to have an account].”
And it’s not right for a brain at this stage in its development according to experts, she added.
“No one in middle school at all should have social media,” Greer said.
Given the fact that she travels all over the country regularly teaching kids about using technology safely, Greer said she sees a lot of that – kids under 13 with social media accounts. No, she assured them, they won’t be arrested for having one. And, in fact, she said she loves social media and is glad that in their lifetime these kids will have access to such a powerful tool.
“However,” she said, “Sometimes stuff happens on social media, and not good stuff.” And although she said she knew they would all shake their heads when she says it, she said it anyway – “It is my strong recommendation that no one be on these apps or sites until they’re thirteen years old.”
Are the kids going to go home and delete their accounts? Probably not, she said. But they will all be fully aware of the risks they are taking while using these apps before they go home and sign on again.
Greer was playful in her approach to Internet safety, setting the tone with a fun game she called “Strangers Online: Good vs. evil” or “The Good Red Sox vs. the Evil Yankees” for fun.
“You all know the rules,” she said. But now was the time for a refresher on stranger danger for a generation that plays interactive games online and spends time on social media.
“Just by being online you have way more access to strangers, and they have access to you.”
Greer presented two photos of two women: woman A and woman B. “Who you think the bad guy is?”
A couple kids said woman A, the non-descript average blonde-haired woman was the good lady. The majority guessed woman B – who was Paris Hilton, of all blondes, and the wrong answer.
Woman A created over 250 fake Internet profiles to trick kids into revealing enough personal profiles to steal their identities to open credit card accounts and take out loans.
“It’s pretty easy to pretend to be somebody else online,” said Greer.
But threats like woman A are sneaky, Greer said. They aren’t mean or scary. They appear to be just another kid, and they don’t outwardly threaten you. And, if you’re ever in doubt, how do you verify if someone actually is who they say they are? It’s the old-fashioned approach – you call them and ask.
This is especially relevant when gaming online, she added, getting a little bit into the privacy and family settings one can apply so that outsiders other than friends and acquaintances could interact in the game.
“One rule when it comes to games,” she said, “Do not play with strangers.” It goes against everything we’ve ever been taught, she said. “You wouldn’t go to playground and play with a stranger– it’s not safe, you’ve know this since you were little.”
All the popular online games have settings to block out strangers, she said, or to only allow outside players by invitation.
Greer then walked the kids down the path of the “digital footprint” and its fundamental permanence on the worldwide web. She said 40 percent of employers now comb through the social media profiles of prospective employees, as well as search for results on Google.
“What you put there stays there,” she said, which is also a useful reminder to adults. From downloading apps, searching keywords on Google, signing into an account – everything you do creates a digital footprint. It’s permanent. It cannot be wiped away.
Take Snapchat, for example. Although the app is designed to share images that will disappear from the screen of the recipient, it only takes a second for someone to take a screenshot of it and send it off to someone else. Statistics say that for every photo that someone shares via Snapchat or text, roughly 25 percent of recipients forward it to an average of four other people not meant to see it. And once an image or a statement is made, it is out there and it cannot be swept away by a magical online broom.
“Once you put this stuff out there it’s a digital foot,” said Greer. “You can’t take it back.
It’s about thinking about these things before you put it out there.”
Greer then stepped briefly into the realm of the digital footprint and child pornography.
“More than 20,000 images of child pornography are posted online every week according to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children,” she said.
And its not just adults who can get in trouble for viewing these images, she added. Underage kids can also be prosecuted, as well as the person, underage or not, who took the photo – including a pornographic selfie. Child pornography is a federal offense and carries with it strict legal consequences.
This is an important topic for discussion with kids this age, she said, because underage kids have been tried and sentenced as adults in this matter.
“These pictures live on forever,” Greer said, cautioning the kids one last time.
If we use technology the right way, said Greer, we can be unstoppable in the things we do. We can do great things, kind things.
“I challenge you every day to think about ways we can use this technology to make this place a little bit better than it was this morning when we woke up,” said Greer. “That’s my challenge.”
By Jean Perry