Cyber safety for youths focus of panel

Elkhart Truth photo/ Blair YankeyTommy Steele, a school resource officer with Goshen Community Schools, provides parents suggestions on how they can monitor their children’s online activity in a panel discussion highlighting cyber safety. 

GOSHEN — Local parents got some insight recently on how to monitor and manage their children’s screen time at a public forum organized by the Positive Parenting Program initiative or “Triple P” in Elkhart County.

The gathering was in the auditorium of Goshen Middle School where about 30 people watched a screening of the documentary “Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age” to highlight cyber safety, organizers said.

“Screenagers” addresses a pervasive parenting issue – depicting teen struggles over social media, video games and internet addiction. The film empowers parents and their children to safely navigate the digital world and provides practical resources to help them do it.

Emily Herriott, a coordinator of the Triple P in Elkhart County, said this was the second time the parenting intervention presented the screening at the middle school because of high attendance at the first screening in April.

“One of the things parents said they wanted more of was information on safety for their kids,” Herriott said. “So, how are schools doing to help students stay safe on the devices that schools send home and what can parents do to ensure that their kids are (safe) online.”

After the documentary, a panel of school officials discussed the film with attendees and provided tips on how parents can establish rules and guidelines for their children to use safely and responsibly.

The panel featured Merv Miller, a technician with Goshen Community Schools, Mindy Miller, teacher librarian at GCS, Vilma Padilla, parent liaison with GCS, Angie Schwartz, social worker at the middle school, Tommy Steele, school resource officer for GCS, and Anna Sawatzsky with Triple P.

Answering the first question of how to manage school-issued devices, Merv said that the district has tools that teachers use in the classrooms that they can monitor the students’ online access.

“We also use a web filter both here at school and at home,” Merv said. “So, if your student has a school-issued device even when they come home, it gets filtered through our web filter.”

Another question asked was what are the schools doing to help students use digital tools responsibly.

In response, Mindy said, the middle school has implemented a cell phone policy that prohibits students from bringing their cell phones in class.

“The cell phones need to be in their lockers,” Mindy told the crowd. “The students can have access to them at lunch; it’s not like they don’t have access to them the whole day, but during class time, those cell phones are not to be within the classroom.”

Also, Mindy said, the school provides resources to students to help better focus the work they do on their laptops in the classroom.

“Part of the conversation that’s come out of Screenagers has been a closer look at what we want students to have access here at school so we can promote concentration and focus on the things they’re here to do and learn.”

Steele answered a question on what apps are safe and age-appropriate for children to use.

He recommended that parents use a parental control app called Qustodio that monitors their kids’ screen time and prevents them from seeing inappropriate content. The app can be used for computers, tablets and smartphones.

“What I like about the app is you can get on your kids’ phone and shut their data on different times,” he said.  For example, “my son’s phone shuts down at a p.m. and doesn’t come back on until 7 a.m. Also this year, he has two study halls so I shut it down during those times as well.”

Padilla answered a question regarding how much time should children be on a cell phone or laptop to which she cited the American Academy of Pediatrics which recommends children younger than 2 avoid digital media other than video chatting.

Children ages 2 to 5 shouldn’t watch more than one hour of high-quality children’s programming per day, the association suggests.

The forum ended with parents filling out surveys indicating whether they believe screening and panel discussion were helpful.

Angie Altenhof, a parent of a fourth-grader at Chandler Elementary, said she was pleased with the forum and believed it provided great information.

 “I have kids from 21 down to 9 and the difference of where technology and screen time and any of that was with my 21-year-old is way different as I go down with my kids,” she said. “There are so many more places they can go now and I think programs like this are great in helping parents.”

Altenhof said she was particularly impressed with the Qustodio app recommendation, one of which she plans to download and utilize to monitor her child’s online activity.

“I just think that kids need to be monitored,” she said. “As time goes on and they have more advanced technology, kids tend to have more than the parents and if the parents don’t know this stuff, then their kids can really get into some stuff that they shouldn’t.”

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