Expert to explain cyber security risks to parents

February 8, 2013

By Caleb Heeringa

New: Feb. 8, 1:26 p.m.

In this high-tech day and age, parents can’t be blamed for feeling like dinosaurs. A teenager’s phone can do things that seemed like science fiction when they were in school.

But cybersafety expert Charles Leitch says that shouldn’t stop parents from learning about the new gadgets at the fingertips of their children and keeping the lines of communication open about appropriate use of that technology.

“Parents should be a resource,” Leitch said. “One of the greatest challenges for parents is that their kids don’t want to talk to them when they run into a situation with technology – first because they don’t think they can do anything and second because they think they don’t understand.”

Leitch, who has spoken to educators and parents around the country on issues of cybersecurity for teens, will offer his advice on parenting in the digital world at a Feb. 21 event at Eastlake High School.

“(Leitch) has given his presentation to staff – he has a lot of good information that helps parents know how to protect their kids,” Lake Washington School District spokeswoman Kathryn Reith said.

Leitch said cybersafety came into parents’ consciousness in recent years with the proliferation of To Catch A Predator-style stories about child molesters recruiting victims through online chat rooms.

While those sorts of threats remain, Leitch said teens are more likely to inadvertently get into trouble online in more innocuous ways. He said he’s seen more and more cases of teens over-sharing on the Internet and having it come back to bite them – whether it’s leaving their phone number on a public Facebook post or sending a potentially offensive Twitter message to a friend.

“Lots of teens don’t realize that there’s an inherent sense of permanence to what you do on the Internet,” Leitch said. “A lot of people think that what they put on their Facebook profile somehow stays on their laptop.”

Leitch notes that a lot of social media sites have opt-in privacy settings rather than opt-out, meaning the user must proactively take the time to make sure their profiles are private. And that privacy may not make much difference if a teen is interacting with a friend’s profile. As a rule of thumb, teens should assume that everything they do on the internet is in public.

“They should ask themselves, ‘If I post this, is it something I want everyone to be able to see forever,’” Leitch said.

Leitch said teens should take a similar mindset when it comes to “sexting” or sending inappropriate or scandalous pictures of themselves to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Leitch said there’s countless cases where those sorts of photos have been forwarded on to others and sent around school, forever impacting a teen’s reputation.

“Those things tend to have legs – once it gets out it’s hard to put back in the bottle,” Leitch said.

But what is a parent supposed to do? While there’s no one right answer to that question, Leitch said he suggests parents keep an open line of communication and prove their tech bonafides to their children. He suggests that parents friend their children on Facebook so they can keep a bit of an eye on what’s going on, but he cautions against publicly disciplining them on the Internet, which amounts to embarrassing them in front of their friends.

Some computer programs offer parents the ability to directly monitor every keystroke a teen makes on their computer. Leitch said these sorts of programs can be an option for young children who may not recognize the significance of what they’re doing, but they tend to be counterproductive for teenagers. Leitch said teens’ budding sense of independence can lead them to resent a parent who is constantly looking over their shoulder online and prevent them from coming to you if they end up having a problem.

“(Monitoring programs) are an extreme response to these issues,” Leitch said. “If you can’t trust a teen with technology to that extent you may need to put some limitations on their use as opposed to being Big Brother.”


If you go

What: Cyber Safety and Social Media Risks – What Every Family Needs to Know

Where: Eastlake High School Theater

When: 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 21

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