Texting, sexting, iPod Touch vs. iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, ooVoo, Skype, Instagram, Minecraft, on-line chatting, bullying, cyber bullying.

Do you know all of them?

I’m not sure I do. While I Facebook and tweet @LivSchools for Livingston Public Schools, the online world of our children is still a bit of a mystery.
 
I googled ooVoo to learn its video chat and instant messaging. Minecraft is sort of like a digital playground for gameplay. Instagram is a fast way to share photos and turns a hum-drum snapshot into artistic photography.

Our children know all this -- and more -- and it’s a send key and #hashtag away ... literally in the palms of their hands.

That was the message on May 29 when about 150 parents came together to learn how to better parent our online children. The forum was presented by Livingston Public Schools to begin conversations on teaching safe and responsible digital behavior.

Let's face it: Children in Livingston are growing up in a digital world. Close to 50 percent say they own an iPod Touch or cell phone – and we’re talking second graders! That was among the findings by Lisa Bowe, an elementary guidance counselor who surveyed students at Hillside. By Grade 5, the numbers soar to 81 percent owing the iPod Touch or cell phone.

Thousands of software programs now offer cool new ways to chat and swap pictures with those devices. The most popular apps send quick pixs and broadcast your location to friends in case they want to meet you. That information can quickly turn to bullying -- and worse -- in the wrong hands.

Bowe’s social media survey provides a glimpse of just what’s happening as early as elementary school: 1 in 4 second graders texting, 44 percent of fifth graders on Instagram. And despite that Facebook is for ages 13 and up, 15 percent of those same 10 or 11-year-olds at Hillside say they’re networking on that popular site.

Collins Principal John Leister was surprised what he learned one rainy recess with 150 students in Grades 4 and 5. More than 50 click pictures and post to Instagram. Ask.fm (an interest-based social Q&A website) is popular with 15 Collins students. Close to 30 say they have experienced negative comments posted on their YouTube videos. A dozen are using Vine, a popular iPhone app used to create six-second snapshots of everyday life.

Those snapshots, comments and six-seconds leave a digital footprint that our children with their aptitude for apps have not yet learned lasts forever, the panelists said.

With Snapchat, for example, they’re messaging photos, videos, text and drawings with the promise that they’re online just for a moment. Those posts children believe will quickly disappear would oftentimes make a parent blush.

“It’s just modern day truth and dare, with technology involved,” observed Sgt. Tom Rich, the creator of Always Connected and cyber bullying expert.

Experts say it's time to talk frankly to children about privacy controls and remind them -- again -- how nothing in cyberspace ever really goes away, even when software companies promise it does.

“They’re children, they’re going to test the waters,” said Heritage Middle School Principal Pat Boland. “They have the technology maturity to use it, but don’t have the emotional maturity to deal with it.”

Their advice? It’s never too early to begin the cyber safety conversation. Be open about online dangers. Set up parental controls. Check where students are going online.

Know their passwords, better yet, demand to know their passwords, said Livingston Police Detective David Fischgrund.

A big hurdle for parents is overcoming the idea they are invading their kids' privacy by monitoring online activity. In fact, the first lesson is that hardly anything online is private, anyway, the panelists at Livingston forum said.

When it comes down to it, it's time to have "The Talk."

“You’ve heard the nightmares,” said Monica Cohen, Livingston’s Business Supervisor for K-12. “What do you do about all this?”

There are many, many resources to help. Cohen has assembled some of the best to keep kids safe and start conversations. The PowerPoint presentations are available on the Livingston Public Schools website (click here) and include ways to monitor when your children are online.
 
Livingston parent Susan Haspel, Vice President, Corporate Social Responsibility for NBCUniversal, has developed a valuable Internet safety resource titled “Growing Up Online.”

This free interactive eBook educates parents and children ages six and older, on using technology responsibly and safely, and was created in partnership with NBC News and The More You Know Learning Series. To learn more and to download “Growing Up Online” for tablet devices go to http://www.themoreyouknow.com/ebooks.

 As wonderful as the Internet can be, Internet protection and safety is the No. 1 issue today. Working together, and digging deeper into what our children are doing online and doing our own homework on keeping them safe, we’ll find those teachable moments to help children behave in their online world.

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