SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- Following a story that went viral last month involving a student who posed in blackface in front of a Confederate flag, the police chiefs in Scotch Plains and Fanwood decided it was time to educate the public on responsible postings on social media.

The seminar held at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School on Monday, Dec. 9, examined the use of social media by teenagers and their parents. According to the chiefs, the reaction of adults on social media following the event added a heightened level of concern over a kid who never made a violent threat and had no access to guns. 

The presenters included police chiefs Ted Conley (Scotch Plains) and Richard Trigo (Fanwood), Dr. Joan Mast, Superintendent of the SPFK12 District, Dr. Jocelyn Demaresq, Park Middle School principal, Dr. David Heisey, SPFHS principal, Kristine Iarussi, District Student Specialist, Captain Dawn Rodger (Rahway police), and Lt. Christopher Guenther, (Linden police), among others.

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"We are living in a digital world. We are role models for our children; their eyes are on us," SPFK12 Schools Superintendent Dr.Joan Mast told the audience. "You really have to be mindful of what you post online. When you are on social media, know the room. Who is in it? What is the group style? Know the atmosphere before you put something in there that you might regret. Get consent for sharing photos."

"Just because you are on social media, keep your humanity," Dr. Mast added. "If you aren't practicing face-to-face, you can lose empathy. Be focused on good citizenship: honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility, and courage. Instill these values... Our lives on social medial cannot be erased; your digital footprint lasts forever."

Kristine Iarussi explained that our self-image is largely based on how we were parented, and what has changed is that awareness of children's sense of self has expanded.

"Mistakes used to remain private," Iarussi said. "Too often mistakes expand to a larger, unwanted audience (because of social media posts). There are constant comparisons, but often, they are not comparing themselves to reality."

Iarussi explained that the social media feedback loop is very important to young people today.

"Self-acceptance is not easy. Our children need to know they are not alone. Social media increases the likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation," she said. "About 1/3 of teens felt persistent sadness and hopelessness. Social connectedness as an integral part of self-development. FOMO (fear of mission out) is important (to them)." 

Dr. Jocelyn Demaresq, principal of Park Middle School, offered some tips for making homes more "tech positive."

  1. Create a social media contract that sets limits and outlines acceptable use
  2. Keep devices out of bedrooms
  3. Monitor online activity 
  4. Model positive technology use and online behavior
  5. Maintain open lines of communication

"It is your choice as a parent to purchase a cell phone for your child. If you do, consider a device with a limited data plan or restricted access to social media," Dr. Demaresq advised. "Technology, TV, and video games lead to trouble going to bed. Lack of sleep has an impact on adolescent brains. Sleep is needed for physical growth and academic performance. One student told me that he was playing Fortnight until 3:00 a.m."

Dr. Demaresq said that there have been instances of kids sneaking out of class to post videos on TicTok, a fast-growing video sharing platform.

"They film themselves in the bathroom and in the locker room," she said. "You wouldn't want your son or daughter compromised."

She suggests monitoring online activity and getting to know TicTok, Instagram, and Roblox, a popular online multi-player game similar to MineCraft. Parents think kids are sharing just photos. These apps provide new ways to send messages. Become familiar with all of them, she advises.

"You'd be surprised how many kids want their parents to spend more time with them," Dr. Demaresq explained. "Some tell me, 'I wish my parents would put down their phones at dinner.' Model good behavior and maintain open communication channels. Get to know their online life and talk about it positively and productively."

Chief Conley warned: "Think before you post"

"One thing we ask you not to post is hearsay." - Scotch Plains Police Chief Ted Conley

"If you hear (a rumor) someone is bringing a gun to school, contact us first. Ask your kids: 'Did you really hear Danny say that he was going to bring a gun to school?' We aren't here tonight about asocial media post, we are here because of what happened afterwards."

Chief Conley explained that the kid who had posed in blackface in front of a Confederate flag had no access to guns.

"Don't be so fast to post things. Call us. Our detectives can tell when a child has seen something; you can't tell from a social media post," Chief Conley said. "It's like the old game of Telephone. If you didn't hear it directly from someone, it's hearsay. Don't go online and possibly set something in motion."

The chief then recounted a story about a quiet kid last year with problems at home who was asked: "Are you going to bring a gun?" He didn't respond, and he wasn't a threat. Chief Conley said the rumor spread, and the student was told to see a psychiatrist.

"When he returned to school, 'the social media monster' started, and parents wrote, 'I can't believe he's back!' The kid never said anything. He's now out of the district."

"This is how we treat our kids. The people who posted didn't know anything about him. I'm telling you, it will be one of your kids next," Chief Conley warned. "Your kids are watching us. If we think it's okay, then they think they can jump on it. It's not okay. I hope all learn from this."

"Things are written without actual data -- all by adults," Fanwood Chief Trigo added. "How would you feel it was your kid? Your kid doesn't even have to do anything. Someone could make up a rumor."

Chief Trigo said he thinks back to his days in school "when Sister Assumpta had us play the Telephone Game."

"Then she made us write down what we told the person," he recounted. "When we got to the end, they had the right message, writing the messages down made us accountable."

With the Confederate flag incident, Chief Trigo believes people acted out of emotion without thinking. 

"There were 40 posts before someone wrote, 'Did you call the cops?' If you hear or see something, say something," he said. "It's like the (REO Speedwagon) song from the 80s. "I heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another..."

Chief Trigo said people comment when have no information, and it escalates situations.

He says people's attitudes are: "I'm going to weigh in. I'm gonna give my opinion, and it's going to be strong -- even if I don't have all the information."

To watch the entire Social Media Responsibility presentation, click here:

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