WEST ORANGE, NJ — Gregory Elementary School’s first Digital Families Community Event, held on site last week, allowed cybersecurity professionals, PTA members and parents to gather in the cafeteria to have a frank conversation about digital safety.

The event—funded through a grant presented to the school from the National PTA and Facebook—also encouraged parents to have constructive conversations with their children about their use of technology, including television, the Internet and digital applications that vary among age groups.

Gregory Elementary School was selected to host the event thanks to the efforts of Gregory School PTA vice president Tez Roro, who is also the mother of a first grader at Gregory. 

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“We’re proud to have won the Facebook Grant that allowed us to host this community event,” Roro said while elaborating on how the $1,000 grant contributed to the event’s marketing and refreshments provided during the event.

However, Roro also noted that the value of the event does not lie with the amount of money provided by the grant, but with the content.

“I wanted to engage the parents and give them something valuable that they could actually go home and apply,” she said.

She added that the program will also promote a “healthy and productive conversation” about how parents and children interact with the Internet as well as provide parents with tools on how to ensure healthy habits around technology. 

During the event, the conversations were moved along with the help of facilitators who volunteered to help facilitate the discussions between parents and their children.

Although many parents have concerns about their children’s Internet use, primary facilitator and lead presenter Matt Konwiser ensured parents that it’s not as dangerous as they think. 

A cybersecurity professional by trade, Konwiser is also a West Orange parent with a 4 year old who is slated to attend Gregory during the upcoming school year. As a metaphor during the discussion, he asked parents to think about their use of knives and how they teach their children to use them.

“[Knives can be dangerous], but they’re also very helpful,” he said. “Why aren’t there more problems with knives and kids? [It’s] because parents teach their kids the appropriate ways and times to use knives.”

Parents recognize that that there’s a time and place to use knives, and there is also a right way and wrong way to use them, Konwiser said.

“The only reason why the Internet is any different is because parents understand what knives are and we don’t always understand exactly what the Internet is or what it does or how it works,” said Konwiser.

However, since technology has become an ubiquitous part of life, the program’s objective is to make technology more understandable and safe, he added. Konwiser continued that children and teenagers, who on average can spend between six to nine hours a day online, need to learn how to properly use social media so that they can share without facing future repercussions.

Konwiser also said that contrary to popular belief, “teens are having more positive than negative interactions online” because of the thoughtful connections that teens can make with people “around the world [and] around the block.”

But this does not mean that children are always posting thoughtful things online, according to Konwiser. He shared an example of a teenager who was so excited about getting a credit card that he not only shared the front, but the “three digits on the back” as well. 

Konwiser asked all the families in attendance to think about this as they broke into three 15-minute sessions, with each group discussing a different topic and making applications to real-life scenarios.

The topics, which were chosen by parents in advance, included healthy habits, managing online presence and how to discuss the use of technology as a family. 

Uma Aviles, who facilitated the session on adopting healthy habits, is a West Orange mother of two with a master’s degree in educational technology. She currently works as a grade dean and Director of Student Activities at an independent high school in New York City.

Aviles mentioned that she thought the program materials provided by Facebook were “interesting because they felt realistic.” The scenarios that she discussed within her session dealt with a child’s online reputation and the repercussions of online bullying, online arguments and online inside jokes that can get misconstrued.

“I work in a high school and so these [scenarios] were things that I can completely imagine happening or have seen happen,” she said.

Kevin Brady, a West Orange dad and moderator of a popular local Facebook group, facilitated a discussion about online presence. He discussed how many social media profiles are highly curated with pictures of vacations and “all the good things in life,” but don’t show always show evidence of the bad days.  

Brady, who currently works as a manager at EisenerAmper LLC with a focus on cybersecurity risk assessment, also said that “people don’t think about how they use the Internet, social media [and] all the devices that we have plugged into our lives, so it’s good to sit down and kind of take a step back to think about it.” 

Another facilitator was Jenn Tunnicliff, who was tasked with discussing how technology is used as a family. During this session, parents and their children talked about which apps were their favorites and developed a plan to allow families to monitor the amount of time that each family member is spending on social media. Tunnicliff elaborated that this allows families to start limiting the amount of time spent online so that they can have more time to connect as a family.

Tunnicliffe, a West Orange resident since 2002, is a mother of three and the vice president of the Liberty Middle School PTA. She is also the founder of Jennuine Assistance Consulting, which “provides small businesses and luxury households with executive and personal assistance,” according to Roro. 

Tunnicliffe said Wednesday’s event was informative, but she believes that teenagers—who were visibly absent from the event—would have benefitted more from the program’s content. However, she also said that getting teenagers like hers to participate in an event like this is easier said than done. 

“Starting [the conversation] early is also good because parents are starting [to think] about it,” she said. “Parents with some older children, like myself, can share some knowledge [with other parents].”

She added that she intends to take the materials given out during the event home in order to facilitate a discussion with her own family.

Konwiser, who is also a martial arts instructor, concluded the program by saying that everyone who participated in the program has earned their “black belt”—but this only marks the beginning of their journey to becoming digitally safe and literate.