When students have access to mobile devices in school, either in a 1:1 or BYOD environment, much of what happens in their school lives cross over into their personal lives. Here at Eanes ISD, over 80% of our secondary students have smartphones that they bring with them to school on top of the school-issued iPad they are given. While we have some say about the activity on the school device, students’ use of their phones for inappropriate activity is an issue both in and out of school. Last year, I wrote this post about the app YikYak and this one about Secret photo-sharing apps. I wrote these (and accompanying letter to district parents) not to scare adults into taking away kids’ phones, but instead to spark a conversation between child and parent.
Today, I sent home the following letter about sexting and cyberbullying via a couple of different apps that we’ve become privy to here. I share this letter with the rest of the world in the hopes that other schools and communities will also start having this conversation, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
The following is a letter sent to all parents of secondary school-aged children at Eanes ISD on January 11, 2016:
Parents of Secondary Students,
Adolescents today have access to knowledge and learning right at their fingertips. They are accessing and creating content on their school-issued iPads and on school computers. More and more of our students also have their own smartphones to access the web and social media. With that access comes greater responsibility and education about the appropriate use of technology and social media. This letter is intended to help raise awareness with families about some trends around the country and possibly among our own students.
There have been several recent instances at high schools around the country of teenagers transmitting illicit images of themselves to other students (also known as “sexting”). Here’s a recent case at a Colorado High School – http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/07/us/colorado-sexting-scandal-canon-city/
In the case of the school in Colorado, many students used a photo vault app like the one we shared last year that looks like a calculator. Students exchange these photos like trading cards, and in some cases, students feel pressured to share inappropriate photos with other students. Once these photos are shared, they can be shared with others and even posted on the web.
Cyberbullying via apps like Brighten and After School
Bullying is not a new occurrence in schools, unfortunately. With technology and social media, there are now new venues for this same bad behavior. Two particular apps that have been brought to our attention as pathways for cyberbullying are the Brighten app and the After School app. Brighten was originally intended as a way for people to send random compliments to each other to “brighten” their day; however, students have used this platform to anonymously bully, make racial slurs, and post other inappropriate comments about other students. Brighten has a way to issue a “time out” if inappropriate behavior is pointed out, but they are not actively monitoring posts. When I reached out to them, they responded with this: “If you are seeing specific instances of bullying, please send people to firstname.lastname@example.org and I can personally take care of it.”
The After School app is promoted as a way to anonymously post messages about your school or those in your school. According to After School data, currently 363 Westlake students are listed as users of this app. When I reached out to them, they responded with the following: “We are very, very sorry about the experience some of your students are having on After School. Our moderators and I are keeping an extra close eye on Eanes Independent School District . We added extra moderators. We are launching an investigation.” They also shared this link: 5 Tips for Parents on Monitoring Their Child’s Social Media Use, which contains some good nuggets of information.
Why are you telling me about this?
We are sharing this news with you to both raise awareness and also to encourage you to have conversations with your child about these apps and sexting. While we can monitor school-issued devices, we can not directly monitor what students are doing on their personal devices. However, if we suspect a student is doing something inappropriate with their personal device, we will confiscate the item and contact parents.
What do I do if my child receives an inappropriate photo or is cyberbullied?
Many students are afraid to turn in other students or afraid that they themselves will get in trouble when it comes to having sexting-like messages on their personal devices. Some students actually feel pressured to take illicit images of themselves as a form of cyberbullying. If a student receives an image and reports it immediately, there will be no punishment as the infraction is being reported. However, if there is intent to possess or promote inappropriate or illicit images, there will be disciplinary action.
What does the law say about this in regards to sexting?
While there are some differences in terms of age (18 years old being the line between minor and adult), the possession or promotion of illicit content of a minor via sexting is similar to being in possession or promotion of child pornography. According to Texas SB 407 – (http://beforeyoutext.com/modules/3.html) A student in “possession” (having illicit content for an unreasonable amount of time) or “promoting” (sending/sharing illicit content with others) can be charged with anything from a Class C misdemeanor to a second degree felony.
What is the district doing to help this?
Our counselors and administration are aware of the situation and ready to help any students that come forward with information around this topic. In addition, we are holding “social media talks” with student groups at the high school as well as discussing digital citizenship and online safety at all levels. For parents, we will continue to host parent talks during booster club meetings and also send out information on our Digital Parent Newsletter (you can sign up here). Starting in the spring, we will hold our 4th “Digital Parenting” course (for more information go to http://eanesisd.net/leap/parents). We have formally requested, as we did with YikYak last year, the app developers put up a ‘geofence’ around our schools. A geofence would block use of the app even on personal phones. However, these companies are not required to comply with this request and even if they do, the geofence is only active around the school, not at home.
What can I do as a parent?
Again, we think it’s important that you have repeated critical conversations with your child about their use of personal technology. Talk to them about the risks of inappropriate use when it comes to sexting and cyberbullying, including breaking the law. Also, most smartphones have ways of checking which apps are being used. For instance, on an iPhone, owned by over 70% of our students, there is a way to check battery usage in settings (with iOS9). Through this check, you can see what apps your child has accessed in the last 24 hours and last 7 days. (see below)
Please report any situations that you are aware of to either the local authorities or school administration. We want to make sure our students know that we are having common conversations between home and school when it comes to sexting and cyberbullying.
Thank you for your support, and please let us know if you have any questions or concerns.
Much like the Yik Yak incident of last fall, I’ve recently been asked to communicate to our local community about another trend with our students. These particular apps an element of “secrecy” and some social sharing involved. I also have to admit, some of them are very clever in terms of how they can be disguised. In light of some recent incidents with our high school students, I created a letter as both a source of awareness but also a resource for tools. What follows is the letter that was sent out to all Eanes ISD secondary school parents on the afternoon of February 10, 2015:
This past week we discovered a new trend among teens with their personal use of technology. While seemingly innocent on the surface, the latest in hidden photo-sharing apps could potentially cause trouble with our youth down the road, especially in the area of “sexting.” While the Eanes ISD staff have taken the necessary precautions to block/restrict these types of apps on our network and devices, students still can engage in misbehavior on their own personal devices which can lead to serious distraction and, even more severely, possible prosecution.
Similar to last semester’s issues with the Yik Yak app, we are once again asking for parents to keep an eye out for the following apps (or similar ones) that might be making the rounds on your child’s phone.
We are sharing these tools and resources with parents in order to promote discussion around responsible decision making, to correct poor choices, and open up a dialogue between parent and teen about their digital lives. What follows is information about some specific hidden photo-sharing apps, next steps to take, and where to go for help and support as a parent.
Keep Safe Private Photo Vault is one of many new “secret vault” type apps making their way through the app stores of Apple and Android. This app is advertised as a way to keep photos and videos safe behind a private PIN and not post them on your public photo roll.
The app is easy enough to identify (see icon here) however, if you share iCloud accounts or check your child’s photo roll regularly, you won’t notice it as photos don’t appear there. While hiding photos is one issue, our concern is with the “Invite friends” premium feature. With this enabled, kids can potentially share photos privately without anyone knowing. One additional premium feature is called “Secret Door”. This allows you to make the app look like another app. Pressing and holding down on the “fake” app enables the PIN pad.
Next steps –
If your child is a Keep Safe Private Photo Vault user, (or a user of other “private vault” type app) a conversation should happen with him/her about why they feel the need to hide their photos and share them privately. If you don’t see the app, but suspect it may have been downloaded, you can also check in the Updates section of the App Store under “Purchased” on your child’s phone. Any apps ever downloaded are stored in there.
Additionally, there are new apps that are disguised as a calculator or a folder on the device, so it’s becoming harder to find these. Two such apps include Fake Calculator and Best Secret Folder (Both pictured here)
These apps look innocent and most of the calculator apps actually are real WORKING calculators. However, if you punch in a secret combination of numbers and symbols, you can “unlock” the secret photo compartment hidden behind the calculator.
Rather than checking every single app on your child’s device, one quick way to check on an iOS device is to go to Settings->Privacy->Camera. There is a list of every app that uses or has used the camera at one time or another.
While deleting the app takes care of the immediate issue, there may be a larger issue at hand when it comes to the use of private photo sharing by your child. Please take this opportunity to have that conversation about how NOTHING on the internet is truly anonymous or temporary.
So….Why should I worry about this?
Much like with Yik Yak in the fall, it is likely that many students will learn about these apps from friends and be curious to try them. Teens have a certain level of curiosity and experimentation anyway, but with the added peer pressure, it could lead to a more serious issue like “Sexting.” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton goes into the details of sexting laws in the state on this site. While the majority of these cases are tied to state courts, here is some more information on the federal side of things.
What else is out there?
Besides those stated above, there are many other apps being made that provide the same service. Here is a Mashable.com post that describes 7 different apps for iOS and Android that are out there to hide photos and videos. Much like social media and kids, the best method of avoiding any type of negative behavior with this technology is openness, awareness and communication with your child.
Where Can I Get Help and Support?
Eanes ISD also provides multiple resources and platforms for parents to get assistance or to report any issues that may be discovered down the road. On February 25th we’ll hold our second annual “Parent University” at Riverbend church to discuss these and many other issues with raising kids in the digital age. Click here for more information on Parent University. I also send out a monthly “Digital Parent Gazette” to interested parents to alert them of any concerns and showcase some great examples of how technology is being used in the classroom. To receive this newsletter, sign up here.
Finally, I’m offering another “Digital Parenting 101” iTunesU course this semester. This is a free 12-week online course offered to the public that covers a variety of topics such as social media, screen time, gaming, and helping your child make a positive digital footprint. The course has already started but it’s not too late to sign up. It officially runs from February 2nd through May 1st.
(note: download the free iTunesU app before enrolling)
Thank you for taking the time to not only review all this information but also to talk with your child. We know that it may be difficult, but it is important to have an ongoing conversation about social media and digital footprints. If you have any other questions or concerns, please contact either your campus administrators, counselors, or me.
It takes a village to raise a child. The more we communicate, the better the learning experience for our kids.
Our focus in education has always (or at least should always) been on the kids. They are the reasons the school building exists. However, we’ve blurred the lines in modern education between school and home. Once you start inviting technology into your school (via BYOD) or you start supplying the technology (via 1:1) you instantly put some pressure on parents to not only comply but be on board.
Where most districts fail (and where we failed initially) is that thinking a “parent night” type meeting or newsletter would be enough to notify parents of this disruptive change. I use the word “disruptive” here not as hyperbole, but to really drive home the point that many parents are not ready for the digital world that lies ahead for their teens. Whether you are doing any type of mobile device initiative or not, there NEEDS to be conversations taking place on your campuses about this from elementary through high school.
I feel like as a district, we’ve improved from the unidirectional communication methods to more of a collaborative conversation with our parents around technology usage and their kids. I’ve written in the past about our Digital Parenting 101 course. This semester’s 6-week course had over 130 parents involved and one of the best parts of the course is the discussion forums. As an administrator it’s such a blessing to be able to have insight on the struggles of the community with screen time, gaming addiction and social media troubles. It helps me stay informed as well as finding resources to help parents in this digital era.
Yesterday, we took the discussion a step further.
With the help of a parent (Jeff Brantley – father of 3 boys and a guru at facilitating discussion) and a couple of my team members (Tim Yenca and Kacy Mitchell), we started our first of many parent-led collaborative workshops. In the spirit of sharing, here’s just a few highlights and a fabulous infographic that Kacy designed to summarize the meeting.
Sticker Dot Activity (before the meeting begins) –
As parents walked into the meeting they were presented with some sticker dots. Around the room, we had posted the top 5 biggest issues for parents (based on the discussions in the iTunesU course and informal discussions with community members). Those 5 issues were:
We gave every parent 5 stickers and told them they could place as many as they wanted on the posters. In retrospect I would have only given them 3, which would have forced them to decide on just their top three topics. Doing this tells the facilitators which topics are the most pressing for the parents.
Following some brief introductions, we asked parents to line-up based on how “Social Media Savvy” they felt they were. I first saw this done by Tim Lauer at iPadpalooza last summer. Once the line was successfully flattened (they tend to group in the middle) we folded the line in half so that the least savvy person was paired up with the most savvy person. Once in partners, they discussed their views on social media both with themselves and their kids. After a few minutes, we had the pairs group into quads and continue the discussion. This served a couple of purposes:
1. It forced the parents to be in groups with people other than their friends, thus avoiding the “echo chamber effect.”
2. It opened up discussion amongst each other around ideas and strategies when it comes to social media.
Staying in their teams of 4, the groups then went to one of the 5 topic posters around the room. It worked out that there were 5 teams in the room, but you could have them combine if there are more. Once at their poster they were given three different color post-it notes to relay either strategies, problems, or quotes they hear around their house about these topics.
The discussions within these groups were incredible! After rotating every 5 minutes and insuring that every group had time in front of a station, we had them come back and regroup for a final activity.
Final Report Out:
Now that parents had spent time in at a station, we let them choose the one that they were most concerned with and regroup with “like-troubled” parents. The final group’s job was to discuss the problems and report out some final strategies that parents can use to solve the challenges presented. While we didn’t solve everything we did open up several connections within the community and came away with a wealth of discussion and resources.
Here’s an amazing infographic that Kacy Mitchell captured and created to synthesize the day’s activities:
I’m looking forward to continuing these parent-led collaborative workshops throughout the year and the data that they will yield. One word of caution is that it may be necessary to frame the day for parents prior to starting. Mentioning the goals of the workshop are to find solutions rather than ranting about issues would be a good thing. It could be easy for one or two parents to turn this from a positive experience to a negative one if they have an axe to grind so going over norms would be good.
Like most kids, when I was young I held some irrational fears. I was pretty sure any unseen thing that brushed against my leg in the ocean was Jaws. Whenever I saw a slobbery St. Bernard, I was convinced it had rabies and was going to attack me. And for some reason, even to this day, I hold an unnatural fear of clowns. But no fear captivated me more than the fear of the bogeyman.
When I went to camp I would hear all the stories about how if you didn’t behave, the bogeyman will come and take you away (usually in a van with no windows). He was a dark, hairy, creepy man that smelled of a foul odor. Kind of a satanic, hippy-like grim reaper of kid justice if you will. That was a pretty obvious (and evil) trick played by parents to make their kids behave. (No judgment here as I’ve told my kids some similar things in moments of frustration). However, this sort of nondescript being called the bogeyman still seemed to keep me up at night. Tall. Dark. Shadowy. And he always seemed to come in the window or live under the bed.
Now a days there’s a new bogeyman and he lives on the internet. His name is “Slender Man” and if you haven’t heard about him yet, you probably will by the end of this weekend. While his tale has been online for several years, it’s now only recently being brought to light following the actions of these 12-year old girls. It’s a sad, tragic tale about a bogeyman story going too far but the crazy thing is, the person that will tell you the most about him is probably an unlikely source…your children.
Much like those stories at camp, kids pass stories and urban legends to each other as sort of a sadistic right of passage into teenage years.
“If you say Bloody Mary’s name in the mirror 3 times and turn off the light, she’ll appear and attack you.”
“Don’t cross your eyes, because if you do and someone slaps you on the back, you’ll stay that way.”
“Did you ever hear the story about the two teenagers who were driving in the woods and escape death from the one-arm hooked psychopath?”
All of these stories are fed by our fears. Now we have an all-you-can-eat buffet feeding these fears even faster and more anonymously….the Internet. The difference between now and then is, instead of hearing inflection or seeing a slight smirk on someone’s face as they try to scare you to death, the internet is as faceless as the bogeyman rumors they are trying to spread.
So what’s a parent to do? My wife’s first reaction is one I find most typical in parents faced with something new and terrible online:
As a parent, when you hear stories as tragic as the one around the Slender Man, your gut reaction is to hold your babies even tighter. In this case, lock the doors, bar the windows, and turn off the internet. That’s a primal reaction that dates back to when we were cavemen and we would hear a growl in the woods. There is NOTHING wrong with that instinct and reaction.
However, while taking away the internet may seem like a great solution to the problem, it actually focuses your energy as a parent on the wrong bogeyman. True, the internet can spread these stories faster than you can keep up with them as parents. True, anyone can really say anything online with little consequence. I mean, look at Charlie Sheen. But in all seriousness, taking that away doesn’t help your child learn.
The reason why I had those irrational fears as a kid was because of the movies I was watching and my lack of ability to disconnect reality from fiction. My parents and I had long discussions (usually after I crawled into their bed faking a stomach ache) about what was real and what wasn’t. In our world, with or without the internet, we must constantly make judgments. About food. About people. About situations. The fact this is a newer medium then when we were kids doesn’t make it any worse, just different.
The bottom line with all of this is we as parents need to have continual conversations with our kids about life. The ability to hold constant mini-conversations with our kids via text messages may make us feel more connected than we ever were with our parents. But it also gives us the false impression that we truly know our kids. That we truly know what they are up to and who they are hanging out with.
In that sense the true bogeyman isn’t a shark. It isn’t a rabid dog. It isn’t a tall, thin man with long wavy arms called Slender Man (“he’s like something out of a Guillermo Del Toro movie” my clever wife quipped). And I’m sorry to say, the true bogeyman isn’t the internet.
The true bogeyman are those small moments with our kids that have escaped us as we were busy doing something else (like writing a blog). It’s those little rips in the fabric of our relationships that we choose to ignore as they grow and fray. It’s all those times we wanted to have a hard conversation with our kids but didn’t want to upset them or make them think we weren’t friends.
You see, the true bogeyman it turns out is in the mirror…only you don’t have to say its name 3 times to make it appear.