POMPTON PLAINS, NJ – Sergeant Tom Rich of the Summit Police Department spoke before a room packed with parents wanting to hear about technology’s effect on their children and his seminar entitled “Media & Cyber Safety: Protecting Children and Teens” on April 12.

The 20-year police veteran discussed his passion for working with and helping children. He said that in a society that is always connected, we become very disconnected.

Parents think about “stranger danger” as the guy dressed in black who wants to kidnap your kid from the grocery store, but the world is different now.

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“The strangers are talking to your kid on YouTube, SnapChat, Fortnight and MineCraft,” Rich said, describing smart phone apps. YouTube is an app for watching videos, Fortnight and MineCraft are games, while SnapChat is a communication app which “deletes” the text soon after the recipient reads or views it. More on that later.

Rich said that it’s important to discuss the apps with your child because even though the games have online chat functions, they don’t need to be activated to play the games.

“It all depends on how you want to parent your child,” he said.

And this generation of children uses technology in very different ways than its parents do.

Rich described how an app can bring delivery food to the door, even if the restaurant itself doesn’t offer delivery, and how kids are watching YouTube to view professional video game players, well, playing games.

“Back when we were young, we wanted to be athletes – those were our heroes,” Rich said. “Nowadays, kids watch videos by the millions of kids diving into bathtubs and rolling in nacho cheese. Or walking into the ‘suicide forest’ where one kid was actually hanging there by a tree. Kids want a phone not so they can actually call anybody – they don’t do that. They text. The technology is changing who they are and how they express themselves.”

Rich showed a video his son had made for YouTube that he told his son he could post later, when he’s old enough.

“He’s not playing with Legos, he’s making videos,” he said. “The simplest thing is changing them as people.”

Rich said his sons make “tickle time” videos, too, which he thinks are cool, but he worries about the technology.

“Technology can be great, but it has to be used in moderation,” he said.

Rich said approximately 573 billion texts are sent per month, but he thinks it’s probably higher, especially since the statistic does not include Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook messenger communications. Further, he quoted the statistic that 19.1 billion texts are sent per day.

“That means that there’s no more face-to-face communication!” Rich said. “Not even on the phone! So much of what we say is non-verbal, yet kids aren’t receiving that.”

Rich said that teens no longer know how to deal with failure or disappointment as a result of the miscommunication that is happening. He said he’s trying to teach his son that effort is important, not necessarily grades.

“Instant gratification is changing our kids,” he said. “When they don’t have to make an effort, it changes them.”

Safety

Rich said parents tell their kids not to share their email address on social media, their school name, etc., but then he asked the audience how many took first day of school photos, soccer team photos, Halloween pictures and put them on Facebook. He said that’s just as bad.

“Facebook has facial recognition software that’s probably better than the FBI’s,” Rich said. “Now, in the news, they’re getting into trouble for not deleting information and for selling information.”

Rich explained that Facebook owns Instagram and when posts are made, the user’s location posts automatically as well. Instagram’s location feature was used by a stalker who was following a teen in a case he worked, he said. He showed the audience how to turn it off.

“SnapChat was created to send nudes,” Rich said. “Sixteen is the age of consent, but if kids are sending photos of themselves, it’s child pornography. The app tricks the phone into thinking the photo is deleted. But with a subpoena it takes 30 days for law enforcement to retrieve that photo – it’s not gone.”

Speaking with Kids

Rich does many presentations with teens and he says he tells them “there is not one text message, post, comment, hashtag, rumor, affair, that should ever make you want to hurt yourself, and if you know someone who feels that way, or you feel that way, you should reach out.” He said he has started telling the adults now too because of the number of suicides he has responded to on the job.

“It doesn’t make you weak – it makes you human,” he said. “Mental health needs to be accepted as being health. I want to teach sympathy and empathy. ‘You may know my name but you don’t know my story.’”

Rich said he tells the kids he speaks to that one comment can tear them down and they don’t know what others are dealing with.

“I do this because other people weren’t doing it right – we need to parent differently now,” he said. “I do this to make a difference, so that if someone reaches out to ask for help, it’s all worth it.”

This program was sponsored by Community Partners for Hope.

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