CHARLOTTESVILLE — Cameron Brock hears it every day in class.
A student walks into his classroom, bragging about how many likes or shares or retweets a post of theirs got the night before. The teacher sees the slight panic in their eyes when he tells them to power down and put their phones away.
At times, it can seem like a teenager’s online persona is directly tied to their self-esteem, said Brock, who teaches at Eastern Hancock High School, and occasionally, that makes students willing to behave recklessly in order to come off as more appealing to their peers online.
At least once a week, issues sprouting from social media or other online exchanges get the attention of teachers at Eastern Hancock High School, which prompted district administrators to host an informational meeting for parents this week concerning their children’s internet use.
The meeting was the first in a series of lessons in online citizenship the district plans to offer parents and students. Officials say their mission is to spark meaningful conversations about safe and proper internet use among Royals families.
A crowd of parents gathered in the high school’s cafeteria Monday evening to listen as principals discussed the smartphone apps that are most popular among their students. Technology experts within the district detailed the programs they use to monitor students’ use of school-issued laptops, and police officers offered insight on the troubles teens can face if caught sharing inappropriate content online.
The district already has established protocols about disciplining students who misuse their school-issued laptops. And while educators are doing their best to keep everyone in check, they say they need parents to join in the effort and monitor their child’s cellphone and other devices regularly, said Lisa Truitt, vice principal of Eastern’s middle and high schools.
Sixth- through 12th-grade students at Eastern Hancock are issued Chromebooks at the start of each school year as a tool to aid in their studies. Their use of that device – every website they visit and every Google search they make, on school property or at home – is monitored by the school district’s IT department, Truitt said. Programs installed in the Chromebook flag an inappropriate search, and teachers and parents are immediately notified.
The kinds of internet-related issues brought to administrators’ attention each week vary, Truitt said. It can be something as simple as a heated exchange between two students on social media, resolved with a firm talking-to from a teacher; or it can be that students have exchanged sexually explicit photographs with another student – or worse, an adult they met online – and law enforcement steps in, she said.
Lt. Cameron Ellison, an Eastern Hancock grad who now works for the Fishers Police Department’s child exploitation investigation’s division, gave some real-world examples of the cases he’s handled in hopes of giving parents a better idea of what could happen to their children.
He spoke of a preteen boy he believes was spared from being sexually assaulted thanks to parental monitoring, he said. The boy thought he’d formed an online relationship with a girl his age, began exchanging messages and photographs with her and made arrangements to meet. Police later found out the profile had been created by an adult man, he said.
He encouraged parents to think of the internet as a window to the world and door into their homes, telling them to make an effort to verify whom their child is interacting with online.
Teachers plan to incorporate digital citizenship lessons into their curriculum more often, Truitt said. Already, they’ve put signs in every classroom that asks students to consider the acronym, THINK, before posting, asking if the post is truthful, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind. Additionally, an Indiana State Police detective will visit Eastern next month to talk with high school students about the importance of Internet safety, she said.
Eastern’s leaders hope keeping an open dialogue with student will foster good decision-making. That way, if something bad happens, the child knows to come to their teachers or parent to seek help, Truitt said.
“We need to be aware that if our kids are online and on social media, they can have contact with everyone,” she said. “Nothing is private. They need to think that everything they put out there as being permanent.”