SOUTH PLAINFIELD - Offering support with timely topics everyone raising children in today’s world needs to know, Parent Palooza 2 was held at the South Plainfield High School on February 26th at 6p.m.  The sessions covered everything from secret emoji meanings teens use to hide conversations, to the sobering realities of Internet addiction and the dangers of unsupervised gaming online and cyber bullying.  Parent Palooza Workshops are sponsored by the South Plainfield Board of Education to offer information, insight and support. 

“The entire educational team and Board of Education understand the challenges parents are facing in this new technology driven world,”  said Doug Chapman, Board of Education President.  “We are committed to educating the community, students and parents, about how to best live with, use and not abuse the technology.” 

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Noreen Lishak, Assistant Superintendent Mary Flora Malyska, Director of Guidance Sam Fierra, teachers, guidance counselors, principals, and Board of Education members were on hand to speak with parents as well as to attend the workshops alongside parents.

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The evening began with a brief introduction in the high school information center, followed by break out sessions.  Parents were given the choice to attend two of the following hour-long workshops: “The Impact of Social Media on Youth: How Setting Limits Can Improve Your Child’s Well-being,” “Cyberbullying & Conflict Resolution Grades K-6,” “Cyberbullying & Conflict Resolution Grades 7-12,” “Device & Tech Dependency: Turned On & Tuned Out!,” and What Is A Digital Footprint? …Why Is It Important?”

“I think Parent Palooza is a good way to demonstrate what we’re reinforcing at school so it can be bridged with what parents are doing at home so there’s a common language and we’re all on the same page,” said Melissa Zurwicky, School Counselor, who led a breakout session on conflict resolution and cyber bullying K-6.

“Technology just blew up out of know where and it’s getting out of control,” said Jamie Giannakis, School Counselor, who led the breakout session on how Social Media impacts youth along with Counselor Denise deMello.  “You can’t keep up and the kids are always five steps ahead of you now and you’re trying to get a grasp on it.  I learned everything I am sharing with you about technology from your children.”  

“What scares me the most about the topic of technology is that we, as parents, don’t know what we don’t know,” said Scott Carey, Parent.  “We scratched the surface tonight.  I think we all owe it to ourselves and our kids to dig a little deeper and learn more in order to identify the threats and psychological harm associated with today’s technology and how we use technology socially.”

The evening shed light on the world children are growing up in today and offered invaluable advice to protect them from the dangers that lurk behind the screen. 

“It’s not like we’re techies or anything, but problems come up and then we deflect them and have to warn others,” said deMello.  “You have to learn from all the mistakes that the kids make.  So we’re trying to prevent that by knowing the mistakes that have happened and what comes across our desk that we deal with everyday to give you a heads up of what we all can do behind the scenes.”

“One of my sessions was hosted by Guidance Counselors from our schools,” said Heidi Geissel, Parent.  “Their examples and topics were taken from the work they do with our kids in our schools. What a great way to help bridge the gap between my child’s and my understanding of today’s technology and social media use.  I really found it helpful.”

Instructors spoke of the importance of parents taking a proactive approach by talking to children about being careful giving out information and trusting their intuition when interacting when others online.  

“A lot of the kids in the elementary schools, and even Grant School, are naive about who they’re online with because they don’t see them and believe that all these people are their friends,” said Leo Whelan, Principal of Riley School.  “And that makes them vulnerable to giving up information.”  

“Kids are so naive when they’re putting information out there,” said Giannakis. “It’s innocent and they don’t think for a second that anything will happen to them, but there are people out there who in two seconds can have all their information, know where to find them, know where they live.  It’s scary.”  

Another important issue to be wary of is that teens are befriending those across the world and trusting they are communicating with peers.

“I can’t tell you how many times, a student will come in and they have a girlfriend or a boyfriend in a different country or state that they met online,” said Giannakis.  “And they talk to them every day, but in reality, we don’t know who is out there.  It could be a fake person for all we know and if you have your location on.  It’s not good.  It’s dangerous.” 

Workshops instructed parents to turn off locators on apps and on photos to keep a child’s location private.  

“Some of the sessions tonight talked about the locators that the devices can have and people can find out where the children are,” added Whelan. “We need to educate the kids.  That’s really where the parents come into play to make sure they monitor what’s taking place with the kids and what they’re playing and how they’re using the devices.”

Parents were extremely interested in the social media aspect of the night as Giannakis and deMello detailed the various social media children are using, warning parents to be aware of their children’s use. 

“Instagram allows for the sharing of pictures and following, which is good because you can follow your friends and family,” said Giannakis.  “But also can be dangerous when you’re following everybody and letting everybody follow you as well.”

Giannakis went on to tell parents to look for fake Instagram accounts, or “Fensta,” used to privately share information with a select few.  

“Fake Instagram accounts are very popular for kids,” said Giannakis.  “They have their regular Instagram account, where they allow anybody to follow them, their family and friends, and then they have their Instagram Fensta, which is a second Instagram account and they limit it as to who follows.  They post everything there - things that they don’t necessarily want their family or peers to know about them, but they limit it to a couple of close friends.”

Problems follow because children think they are posting privately to their close friends and  sharing intimate details about their lives, but  nothing is truly private.

“I think it’s a very important discussion to have with your kids,” said deMello.  “It’s important to remind them that when you tell a couple of people, it doesn’t necessarily stay there.  Make sure they know that when someone tells you something really interesting, it’s human nature to tell just one other person.  It’s not like the other person is terrible or mean, it’s just human nature.”

Many children think they are safe because Apps alert them if a screen shot is taken, but updates are always being made to phones that users may not be aware of.

“I think a lot of times, the kids’ response is that they know if a screen shot is taken or others share it because they get an notification, well now iPhone has gotten ahead of that and there’s a button on the phone called ‘screen recording’ and you can just screen record anything that you’re viewing and nobody gets notified,” said Giannakis.  “It actually saves as a picture to your camera roll that they can send people.”

Giannakis and deMello stressed that technology is part of today’s culture and should be embraced, but with caution and open discussion with children.

“It’s so important, and we try to stress to the kids every day in school, that even though they think the things they’re posting on social media and sharing disappears, it doesn’t,” added deMello.  “It really doesn’t, so it’s really important to stress that at home too.”

SnapChat is a popular App used and has surpassed texting for most teens because the conversations supposedly disappear.  “Snaps,” pictures or video with filters, and “Streaks,” videos and pictures are sent back and forth.  SnapChat makes it difficult for parents to monitor ongoing conversations.

“Another thing I notice with the kids, is that they don’t text anymore,” said Giannakis.  “Their texting is all through Snapchat.  That’s how they communicate and their text messages disappear, so there’s no tracking of what they’re talking about if you take your child’s phone and check their text messages.  Well, they don’t have anything there because they were communicating all through SnapChat with their conversation.”

The secret language of emojis was another popular topic of the evening.  Emojis adults use casually in a text could hold meaning that is very different for a teen.  “100,” means you’re looking really good. “Eyes” can mean send nudes.  The fox can refer to somebody asking your child to sneak out.  The frog means that someone is ugly.  A skull, could mean drugs.   The list continued with several emojis alluding to possible double meanings involving sex and drug use.

The sessions also addressed how gaming has become an outlet to bond with friends and strangers, but has an addictive element.  One of the most addictive games is "Fortnite," which offers the ability to chat online while playing.  Instructors warned to make sure parents know who their children are chatting with and perhaps instill a rule that they only play with people they know.

“Sometimes, there are adults playing, who might be lonely and telling too much to the kids, not necessarily in a creepy way, but sharing their deep depression and adult issues,” said deMello.  “The kids are now worried about strangers who are miles and miles away.” 

deMello says that it’s important for parents to play the game a couple of times and know what their child is getting into.  It is also important to limit the time online and and interrupt often.  

“There’s such an addictive component to gaming that if you interrupt the cycle regularly, it’s less likely that your child will get addicted,” said deMello.  “So if you teach your child that you can stop every half hour or so, even if you can go get a snack.  You don’t want your child to not have exposure to technology, but interupt them a lot so it doesn’t become zombie mode, where they don’t leave or do anything else in life.”

Trained Sex Abuse/Human Trafficking Investigator and President of Kriger Consulting, John Kriger, MSM, led a breakout session about dependency on technology and the pains tech companies go to enhance dependency on the devices they sell.  Kriger’s passion for researching and finding solutions to the issue of technology dependency came from a tragic accident that nearly took the life of his daughter, who required eighteen hours of surgery to repair the base vertebrae in her spine after being hit by a driver distracted by his phone.

“My background is in addiction and also in child abuse,” said Kriger.  “One of the things I started looking at about fifteen years ago was our use of technology and I started seeing it being used very much like drugs and alcohol had been used.  Today, we have families that don’t have enough food, don’t have enough shelter, don’t have enough of anything that they need, but what do they have is the newest phone and large screen televisions.”

Kriger spoke about how technology use releases dopamine, a chemical released in the brain responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells of the brain.  Dopamine is the chemical released by the brain with the use of alcohol and drugs. 

“We have to recognize that technology is addictive for kids and adults,” said Kriger.  “Think about it, when you go out of your house and you’ve forgotten your phone, how does it feel?  You start feeling overwhelmed.  You can’t focus on things, you start to hyperventilate, your breathing is more shallow.  What’s that sound like?…Withdrawal.”  

According to Kriger, computer programmers have learned to capitalize on this addiction.

“Every time you get a ping on your phone, a text coming in, your brain’s getting a hit of dopamine, the pleasure chemical that you get or use when you get high from drugs or alcohol,”  said Kriger.  “So we have to recognize that the pleasuring feeling we get reenforces our use so what we’re finding is that we want to stay on it more and more and more because it makes us feel good.”

Kriger explained how tech companies are hiring neuroscientists, behavioral psychiatrists and other experts to make devices more addictive, or as they call it, “engaging.”  Computer programmers are well aware of how to how to “hack brains” to ensure dependency on their products.  In brain mapping studies, high levels of technology use actually change the brain.

“When you look at someone who has had a high level of use of technology, you see some of the same changes structurally in the brain that you see in meth and cocaine addicts,” said Kriger.  “It actually immobilizes certain areas of the brain.  When we start looking at gamers and they’re just immobilized.  They can stay that way for up to ten days after the person stops playing the game and they have to do with things like judgment and controlling emotions.”

Kriger showed studies and research indicating how the overuse of devices greatly impacts academic studies and performance in school.

“How many of you have a child that uses their phone when they are on their phones?” asked Kriger.  “When kids are on their phones and they’re studying, they’re paying attention to something related to their studies.  If they have a text that comes in, the brain literally takes fifteen to twenty minutes to get back to the same level of concentration they were in when they left it.  So what does that do to an hour’s homework assignment?  That balloons it into two hours or more.”

Kriger says that studies are finding the frontal lobes of young people who binge watch videos experience a delay in development of the frontal lobe, which is the judgment center of the brain.  

“There’s some real concerns because if a young person is watching YouTube videos one after the other after the other,” said Kriger.  “What are they not experiencing?…Life.”

“I thought this was eye opening,” said Parent Claudia Orjuela.  “A lot of the areas are things that I have thought about, but this takes it to another level of how to see how technology affects the kids and ourselves as adults.”

“We, as parents, need to pay attention and walk in periodically when our children are on their devices to see what they’re doing, learn how to check histories, and know where they’re going online,” said Kriger.

The solution to parenting children in the age of technology comes down to maintaining awareness and setting boundaries, according to Kriger.  Every instructor agreed that parents need to be aware of what their children are doing online.  Research of and installing monitoring programs for children's technology in the home was also encouraged.

“You are in charge, even though you may not feel that way sometimes, because you put a roof over their head, you feed them, everything in their room is probably due to you so you can take it all away," said deMello.  "Use your power.  You have that power."

“Some of the questions tonight were about what happens when we have to take the device away and they start throwing tantrums,” said Whelan.  “And in one of the sessions they talked about setting a contract with the kids so they know early on if something happens there will be this consequence, we will take the device away and your time is limited so if you go over, we will take the device away.  Setting the contract, even in the younger ages, in the elementary schools, it’s important.”

Another suggestion was for adults and children to leave phones out of the bedroom.

“What happens now is a lot of kids bring their phone into their room, lay in bed and are not giving their brain enough time to detox,” said Giannakis.  “Your bed should be your safe place.  It’s really important that they have that safe space.”  

“When your child, and even yourself, is on the phone right up until bed, very often you have difficulty sleeping,” said Kriger.  “It’s because you have chemicals from interacting from that device that are in your brain, not letting you calm down before sleep.  It’s like looking into a Lightbox, which can delay the release of melatonin in the the brain, throwing your sleep cycles off.”  

Kriger suggests instilling clear boundaries and places in the home where devices cannot be used.  Tech free zones, times set aside for family night or one weekend a month without technology are healthy and beneficial.  He also says that modeling what we want for children is crucial.  Parents must also unplug with their children, talk with their teens, have family time and read stories before bed for the younger children.  Encouraging opportunities for social interaction is essential.

“People aren’t hanging out with each other,” said Kriger.  “Kids hang out with each other, but not in person, so they’re not establishing those bonds, those relationships.  They’re not interpersonally connected.  Loneliness is an epidemic today and I believe a lot of this is due to this we have five billion connections, but we’re not really connected to any one.” 

A major issue covered during the evening was that an entire generation is growing up without the ability to form and maintain relationships.

“Teaching children what it’s like to make relationships and build relationships outside of using a phone is important because that’s the biggest thing that’s missing today,” said Giannakis.

“We’re totally connected, but we’re not connected to anyone, so to me, it’s learning how to reconnect,” said Kriger. 

Along with unplugging from technology from time to time, Kriger stresses the importance of keeping computers out of the bedroom and if teenagers do have computers in their rooms, that they keep their doors open.   

“How many of you trust adolescent judgment?” said Kriger.  “So we know that the brain is not fully developed.  The problem is that there are lots of people on the Internet today that want to take advantage of kids.  We as parents, need to pay attention and walk in periodically when they’re on their devices, see what they’re doing, learn how to check histories, know where they’re going.”  

It was advised that headphones be replaced with speakers so parents can hear if their child is speaking to an adult or bullied when they play games online.

“I would try to have the kids on the speaker system so it’s not just on the headphones and you can hear what is being said,” added Whelan.  “If you hear someone cursing or you hear an older person playing with your seven-year-old child, you can stop it immediately”

With anxiety and depression skyrocketing, along with social isolation and decreased social skills and the inability to cope with life, Kriger suggests mindfulness and other forms of relaxation in classrooms and at home.  Meditation and relaxation are essential in maintaining psychological health in today’s world.

Instructors of every break out session agreed that children of all ages can access to information, people and entertainment with the touch of a button, however, parents need to be involved.

“It’s so important to monitor and limit technology,” said Giannakis.  “Obviously, we know it’s a main aspect of our lives in today’s world so we can’t just prevent them from using technology, but healthy use of it, monitoring usage and limiting time is essential.”

“With social media, Internet and the games that kids are playing, parents need to be involved and pay attention to what their children are participating in and making sure they set the right limits for that so that they can learn,” said Whelan.  “The kids want to participate in that but they need the tools to learn how to do that properly and it really falls on the parents to do that.”  

“This has been extremely informative,” said Stephen Studlack.  “I think every parent should attend at least one Parent Palooza.  There are things that I didn’t even know about.  There’s good things that I’ve done as a parent that are good to be reenforced and a lot of things I didn’t know about the effects of cell phones and technology today.”  

 “Just remind the kids on how to trust their intuition because if someone gives you that creepy feeling, even when if you were friends you were cool online, keep it in the back of your head,” said deMello.  “We can’t shelter them from everything but I think we can teach them that they do have the instinct to know when things are not correct.”

“Technology can be overwhelming for parents because of how fast it changes and how rapidly it moves,” said Zurwicky.   “All being on the same team and trying to get ahead of it is very beneficial.”

Rather than avoiding technology and allowing children free reign of the Internet without supervision, the experts advised to be informed and aware.  Technology has opened a world of possibilities, but with everything in life, discernment is a key component and impressionable minds need parents.

“You wouldn’t let your children go out to the mall without asking who they are going with, what time are they going to be home, who else is going to be there and maybe even check up on them once in awhile when they’re out,”  said Kriger.  “It’s no different on the computer.  You have to check those things because we don’t know where they’re going today.  They don’t have to leave their room and they could still be getting into trouble.”  

According to the instructors of Parent Palooza 2, setting clear boundaries, monitoring children's online time and usage, modeling what parents want from their children, creating and offering opportunities for interpersonal interactions as well as introducing oneself and chidlren to meditation, prayer and periods of introspections, will go a long way in helping to raise children in the challenging environment of a technology driven world.

“Parent Palooza 2 was an extremely informative event designed to help parents navigate our increasingly complex society,” said Christine Brandenburg, Library Media Specialist.  “As a parent and as an educator, I’m proud to be part of a district that places such a high value on life-long learning as well as community outreach.”

More information can be found on www.spboe.org and for studies about technology dependency, go to www.techdependents.com.

“We feel events like this are very important,” said Chapman.  “Unfortunately, the attendance is low, so we are not sure the parents see the value.  We will evaluate the feasibility of continuing with future dates. We know there is a huge need for help with these challenges and want to be a community leader and will continue to try to find ways that parents will find helpful.”