If you didn’t attend the combined Enumlcaw-White River School District Teen Wellness Night and listen to Officer David Gomez speak last month about the dangers of social media, here’s the gist — unless you lock your child up and completely deprive them of modern tech, they will see porn, get bullied, and interact with scammers and predators.
And there’s nothing parents can do about it.
But hope is not lost, and Gomez says the best things parents can do to protect their children is forewarn and coach them about these unavoidable situations and set a good example.
A few ground rules like no phones or computers in the bedroom help, too.
While Gomez is a school police officer (or student resource officer) with the Meridian Police Department in Idaho, the things he’s experienced in his job are universal for teens and adults around the country. With his IT background, Gomez’s specialties include using social media to identify, track, and arrest online predators as well as locate runaway kids and teens.
During his Sept. 27 talk, Gomez touched on many uncomfortable realities that children face today, from online bullying and online bomb threats to naked selfies and sexual grooming.
But another, and maybe even more important theme he touched on, was that many adults are not only unaware of the dangers kids face today, but actively provide them the tools kids will use to get themselves into trouble, whether it be with an online troll, a predator, or even the law.
“For a lot of parents, kids not having a phone is a bigger pain for the parent than it is for the kid,” Gomez said, recounting several stories how parents refuse to take their kids’ phone away, even after they were caught bullying or sharing naked photos.
The presentation was long, and can be viewed on courierherald.com or on the White River School District’s website (scroll down to the “Recent news & Upcoming events” section), but for those who don’t have two hours to spare, here are some highlights.
PORN AND NAKED PHOTOS
Many parents want to believe their children wouldn’t be the kind to watch porn or take naked pictures of themselves, Gomez said.
But it’s about time for parents to throw that idea out the window; studies show that up to 90 percent of teenagers have viewed porn online, a rising trend fueled by the increasing number of kids with smartphones.
“This is something you have to talk about with your kids, especially if you give them a smart phone. My two qualifications for giving a kid a smartphone: No. 1, they be 13 years or older,” Gomez said. “No. 2, understand clearly that they will be looking at pornography on that phone… it is going to happen.”
And even if your particular child is one of the remaining 10 percent, Gomez continued — perhaps because you haven’t given them a smartphone — they’ll still likely be shown explicit images by their classmates and friends.
Less prevalent, but no less important and perhaps far more consequential than watching online porn is sending nude photos.
In Gomez’s experience, up to 70% of high school teens have taken and sent nude photos to another person; other studies, (like from Thorn, a nonprofit that aims to study the sexual exploitation of children online) have shown the figure could be closer to 19%, but more than a third of teenagers think it’s normal to do so.
Gomez warned that anyone under the age of 18 taking naked photos of themselves and sending them to others can be considered to have created and distributed child pornography, or child sexual abuse material (CSAM). While some experts say it is unlikely for two minors consenting to sending and receiving nude photos of each other to be prosecuted, sharing explicit photos of another teen or to another teen without consent can land them in trouble with the law. According to Thorn, about 8% of teems have re-shared explicit materials to other people.
Several states have made it illegal to do so; in Washington, minors over 13 sending explicit material to another minor over 13 can be charged with a misdemeanor. This was changed from a felony in 2019.
“Once you take a picture, it’s out. You can never get it back,” Gomez said, and told several stories of teens having their photos shared around their whole school, were exploited to take more photos, or pay blackmailers when their photos got into the wrong hands. “It’s like trying to unscramble an egg… naked pictures are life changing, whether you’re a kid or an adult.”
Gomez added that students and parents should contact law enforcement any time a problem with a nude photo occurs.
SCAMS AND PREDATORS
Gomez didn’t start out as a social media expert, but to become one, he made a fake Facebook account (of a 13-year old girl) to learn how his students acted online. According to him, that was extremely easy — all he had to do was send a friend request to students, and they blindly accepted.
Eventually, he told his students that he was able to see what they posted on Facebook. His students then attempted to remove him from their friends list, but found themselves unable to tell Gomez’s fake account from all the other random friends they were connected to.
Scammers and predators will do the same thing on Facebook, Gomez told his audience.
“How many boys are going to say ‘stranger danger’ to ‘15-year-old hottie girl’?” Gomez said, referring to a specific scam where a fake user poses as a young girl who sends nude photos to teenage boys in exchange for photos of them. “You may think your kid is smarter than a predator, and they’re not.”
Other scams include strangers creating a fake profile that appears to look like someone a teenager may recognize from their school — a popular cheerleader or football player — to encourage them to send sexually explicit material. These scammers then turn around and say they’ll send the photos to other friends, family members, etc., unless they receive more photos or money.
“Let [law enforcement] know right off the get-go,” Gomez said. “Do not pay them.”
Facebook isn’t the only platform scammers and predators use — they can happen over any and every kind of social media platform, from Instagram and Snapchat (where Gomez says most illegal activity happens) to even supposedly child-friendly platforms like Roblox.
“Anything that you can chat with someone is dangerous,” he said.
Gomez added that one of the best ways to stay away from online scammers and predators is to limit connections to people you know in real life.
BULLYING AND SOCIAL CONFLICT
There’s a difference between bullying and social conflict, Gomez said, and parents don’t always get that.
“Bullying is probably the most overused term used by parents,” he said. “My definition of bullying is… one way repeated harassment of any kind. Plain and simple.
“If your kid is involved in a Twitter fight, where [they’re] going back and forth, that’s not bullying,” Gomez continued. “They are participating. That is called social conflict.”
When it comes to online bullying, Gomez explained three steps a teenager can take to stop it.
“Number one, stop talking to… or about the person. Number two, block the bully and move on with your life,” he said. “The third step is the most important step — tell your friends to stop sending screenshots.”
You can’t be bullied if you don’t know you’re being bullied, Gomez added. “That’s the magic of it.”
And when it comes to social conflict, Gomez continued, the best things parents can do is set clear expectations and follow through on consequences when those expectations are not met. He told a story of a family who told their 13 year old daughter she could have a smartphone if she never wrote anything negative about someone else online; the student then got involved in a social conflict situation, and the phone was taken away for a year.
“I had her all the way through her senior year in high school. She never had another problem,” Gomez said. “That’s what parents have to do. They have to plan this ahead of time.”
He added that social conflict is not always negative, and can be good learning moments.
“You should welcome it as a parent,” Gomez said. “You are your kids’ coach. You’re supposed to coach them through problems.”
Gomez added that parents should “stay off the field” when it comes to these social conflict situations.
Teenagers are resourceful, Gomez told parents, and may resort to creative or even extreme measures to get around parental controls.
Simply uninstalling a parental control app is one of the easiest ways teens can get around restrictions; experts recommend choosing a parental control app that is centralized, rather than needing to be installed on multiple devices, with the ability to alert you to attempted access or deletion.
Teens can also simply restore their phone to its factory setting, which will remove all filters; experts recommend a cloud-based control app, since that will continue to monitor a device even if it is reset.
Some parents simply try to limit their teens’ internet access by not allowing the device to access wireless data. However, kids can “hotspot” with other devices and piggyback on their internet access. Parents can ask their carrier to disable hotspot functionality on devices.
And, of course, there’s the old-fashioned “incognito mode”, a web browser feature that doesn’t save internet activity data on a device — in other words, no search history. Most popular web browsers have that feature, though the feature can be disabled.
Teens also change their time zone to get around some parental controls; use screen video and capture tech to learn usernames and passwords; create secret social media accounts; and even buy second phones.
The next Teen Wellness Night is being organized by the Enumclaw School District, and will be held at the high school on March 28, 2023.
There will be a local resource fair on the various services and nonprofits offered on the Plateau and an education presentation on substance abuse.