There are two things children and teens should remember above all else when it comes to using the internet: be skeptical and think before you click.
The concepts are simple, Margy Koping said, but in today's world, where wifi connections and internet devices are nearly as ubiquitous as the air we breath, it's easy for children to forget that the internet is never as private or safe as they'd like to think, even when they believe they're sequestered on social networking sites with only their friends around.
Koping, assistant prosecutor in the Monmouth County Prosecutors Office Computer Crimes Unit, spoke to more than 30 parents, teachers, and students at Red Bank Middle School Thursday about online threats facing children and teens, including everything from adult predators to each other, in the form of cyberbullying.
The presentation was sponsored by the Red Bank Human Relations Committee.
"(Students) don't see the personal connection of online communication," she said. "If they took a moment to think how wrong (something) is and translated it to what they're doing online, that would help the situation."
The presentation began with a clip from the Comedy Central animated show Southpark. As fictional satire, the scene is hilarious. Cartman decides to ditch his friends in favor of more mature relationships. When the fourth grader finds the chatroom called "men who like young boys" he immediately receives messages and solicitations from a dozen different users all too willing to be his friend.
Even for a jaded, potty-mouthed cartoon the intentions of his new friends aren't obvious.
The cartoon received a few scattered giggles from the crowd but the situation, exaggerated as it may be, is still based in some kind of reality. Kids are naive to dangers lurking online, Koping said, and often their posting choices are what make them a target. When young internet users post personal information, such as their name, date of birth, hobbies, and school, without employing privacy settings or enough discretion, they're inadvertently giving predators incentive to seek them out.
"They don't think about the information they're putting out there," she said. "Things that may seem innocuous to them can lead to someone gathering a lot of information with only a little amount of work."
Maintaining a buffer between your internet life and your real life isn't too difficult, but it is something that needs to be done. When it comes to issues like bullying and harassment, however, the threats rarely come from the outside.
On a large projector above the stage in the middle school auditorium, Koping displayed the images of several teens who have committed suicide in recent years. One girl was harassed for years because of the way she looked. Another girl had a private image of herself distributed online. Others were bullied because of their sexual orientation.
Still, for some victims the reason for the bullying couldn't even be identified.
In each case presented by Koping the bullying and harassment took place online, spreading and growing larger in proportion than it ever could on the school yard. The methods of bullying someone online are as vast as they are hurtful. From posting public insults to online shunning, there are many ways in which children can be victimized by cyber bullying.
And, when it's outside of school, the issue becomes harder to identify and stop.
"In the school setting there are so many safety nets in place," Red Bank Superintendent Laura Morana said. "At home that's often not the case."
Ultimately, Koping said, the key is awareness. Parents need to talk with their children about the internet and the issues that are costing other young people their lives. It's also up to the kids to realize the impact of their words and actions on a platform that does not forget.
Children need to remember: be skeptical and think before you click.