Source: Sherman Publications

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Technology, laws and good parenting

January 18, 2012

Cell phones.  Smart phones. Computers. We all have them – and we love them. 

They let us keep in touch with one another and world events.  We can check the latest score of a game, a movie time, or a traffic route.

But we also have handed this wonderful technology to our children – and they are not just using it to get directions from Lake Orion, or checking the weather.

I often ask parents if they would hand over the car keys to their children without any formal drivers' education or providing their own 'rules of the road'.  All parents agree that their children need an education before being handed such a powerful resource as a car.

Yet, when a cell phone or computer is concerned there are little if any "rules" given in most families across our county and our country.

I am not talking about monitoring the minutes your child uses, or the number of texts they send.  I am talking about advising them on appropriate content of messages and conversations.  When handing over a new cell phone or computer, do we tell our children that this is a powerful and sometimes dangerous device? 

Three years ago when I was first elected prosecutor, I set out to reorganize and address the problems in each of the divisions of the office.

In the Juvenile Division, I found innumerable cases of young people stealing one another's email and cell phone passwords and sending malicious messages, pretending to be someone else.  There were explicit photos being sent and re-sent, and sent again – downloaded and uploaded, used as blackmail for items and actions.

There were bomb threats on social networking sites, discussions of drug activity, and rampant cyberbullying.  All of these actions are against the law – and yet, the juveniles all seemed genuinely surprised when they were brought into juvenile court.

Part of my job is to prevent crime and I realized that a major outreach effort had to be undertaken.

I approached the Oakland Schools' leadership and secured their permission to take my message on the road.  To date, I have made 85 presentations to students and parent groups. We conservatively estimate the number of students we have reached to be in excess of 15,000.

Why do I do this in person?  Because they need to hear it from a judge of 28 years, and the first female prosecutor in Oakland County's history.  Because I look them in the eye – and remind them that they should not use technology to do something that they would not, should not, do in-person. In this age of anonymity, I try to remind them that there is a face behind the recipient at the other end of their mes sage.

 There are three parts to the presentation.  The first part focuses on the laws governing technology use, the second part focuses on the consequences and the third focuses on the predator who may be watching them. 

 There are laws governing telecommunications devices – cell phones and computers – regarding what you can say and what you can post.  It is that simple.  The First Amendment governing free speech only goes so far.  You cannot use a device to frighten, harass, or threaten harm to another.  You cannot use someone else's device or read their email without his or her permission.  And, if you are under 18 years of age, you cannot solicit, create, possess, or send a sexually explicit picture depicting someone under the age of 18 (including yourself).  The penalties for these crimes include incarceration for anywhere from six months to 20 years, and may include fines of up to $20,000. 

 Then we talk about the social consequences of reckless behavior on the phone, on social networking pages and on the computer.    Cell phones and computers are within reach 24/7 – which means that a juvenile can be the target of cyber bullying 24/7.  No child should be the victim of that kind of unrelenting pressure. And some young people simply cannot handle it.  There are documented suicides of young people because of cyber bullying and cell phone pictures that have been sent beyond the intended recipient. 

The fact is if a picture is sent electronically, there is no way to ultimately control where it goes; if a statement is sent in anger there is no encryption to prevent the forwarding of messages.  I say to young people over and over – nothing is private when send things over the internet, post to a social network or between cell phones.  We cannot get the message back for the victim – even if we successfully prosecute.  We also talk about the fact that posts and pictures on social networks may wind up being reviewed by college recruiters or potential employers.

The final part of my message to the students is this: be careful what you post because you do not know who is watching. 

We know sex offenders are sitting on the internet and waiting.  It is not a bragging right to have hundreds of friends on your social network page, for anyone can post a picture and claim to be 15- or 16- years-old. And yet our young people who beg their parents to respect their privacy post details of every aspect of their lives on a page visible to the world. This is not only foolish, it is dangerous.

 Since I began presenting this message, I have visited the Lake Orion community twice, first before students in 2010 and then parents last week. 

One thing about my message has not changed over the last two years. I would much rather meet the young people and their families at presentations, than to meet them as victims or defendants.

Parents are the ones who buy the technology for their children – and they are in the best position to make sure that it is used properly in day-to-day life. I implore them to check their kids' phones on occasion; hop on their social networking site.  Tell them to password protect their devices – and then not to share that password with anyone but you. 

 With all of the advances in technology, no one can keep up with the latest, greatest sites and apps. 

But I know one thing for certain, no matter how fast your Wi-Fi is, nothing replaces good daily parenting. 

Thanks to all the parents who attended my recent presentation at Lake Orion High School.  It was truly my pleasure to spend the evening with you!