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Online dangers are real for 'most tech-savvy generation ever,' Bel Air parents are warned

Vincent DeVivo, with the U.S. Attorney's Office, talks about the dangers of the Internet for young people during a session at Mt. Zion United Methodist Church Monday. (Bryna Zumer/Aegis video)

Vincent DeVivo is "amazed" that any parent would just hand a child a smartphone and say, "Here you go; you know what to do with it."

To DeVivo, a community outreach specialist from the Maryland U.S. Attorney's Office, any online device is a portal to a dangerous world, where the intimate details of anyone's life can easily be found by people with the wrong intentions.

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Ironically, he said, it's the so-called "Generation Z," the group mostly in their teens today, who are the most vulnerable to dangers like cyber bullying, online predators and over sharing of information.

"Why is that? They're the most tech-savvy generation ever," DeVivo asked roughly 100 people gathered at Bel Air's Mt. Zion United Methodist Church on Monday night.

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The church had invited him to speak about Internet awareness and safety for young people. While most in the audience were parents or other adults, teenagers and some younger children also listened closely to his terse warnings.

"The initial research suggests that the reason our youngest kids are among the most vulnerable for threats has to do with the fact that they receive information at such a rate of speed and such a volume that they do not have time to sort through any of it," DeVivo intoned.

"Picture your youngest kid standing at the base of a Niagara Falls of data. It's coming at them so fast," he said, noting they do not want to be left behind and are ill-equipped to handle solicitations that may seem innocent.

He urged parents to know if an online device is GPS-enabled, to set privacy settings on social media like Facebook as high as possible and to think twice, or even several times, before posting any item online, no matter how private it may seem.

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He noted even social media like Snapchat, which claim to let pictures disappear, are likely to be storing them.

Last year, Snapchat settled charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission alleging the service deceived consumers with promises about the disappearing nature of messages it sent and the amount of personal data it collected, according to FTC news releases.

DeVivo showed how a savvy user could find detailed information on a random teen, including where she lives and when her parents may not be home, in as little as 20 minutes.

"Just imagine how quickly it would have gone if they had gotten one of those shared photos and extracted the metadata with the [latitude] and [longitude coordinates]," he said.

Several parents said after the presentation they were especially surprised to see how fast information can be tracked down.

"That was very eye-opening to me, and of course it seems like it's always the predators who have those skills" Julie Megargel, of Forest Hill, said. "It's very scary."

She noted she has been trying to restrict Internet use for her 11-year-old daughter, Grace.

"She has Instagram and she wants to get a smartphone," Megargel said of her daughter, referring to the picture-sharing social media site of Instagram.

Grace Megargel also said she did not know personal information could be found so quickly. She said sometimes students are bullied at her school and, although she has not heard of cyber bullying incidents, she knows someone who pretended to be another student on the social networking site Ask.fm and answered questions under the fraudulent identity.

"I would never want to get Ask.fm," Grace Megargel said.

Cyber bullying is another danger that captured media attention in recent years after some of its young victims committed suicide. DeVivo called it a function of a group dynamic that reaches teens even when they are alone.

"Every school is two schools," he explained. "There is the physical school, the building you can stand in, and there's also the online school."

The world of the online school has no school resource officers, no administrators and no locks, he said.

"If you want to know your school, you have got to know the online school," he said. "Cyber bullying is silent, it's anonymous and sometimes, it has the worst possible ending."

"My SROs [school resource officers] back up that the vast majority, and in some cases 100 percent, of the issues they have had to deal with online behavior began at home and only escalated at school because that is the physical location where the kids get together," DeVivo said.

He encouraged parents to ask their children if they are comfortable telling the parent when they come across inappropriate information, which is highly likely to happen sooner or later.

He also encouraged parents to stress that the "Internet golden rules" are the same as the "golden rule" in real life: showing kindness and dignity, not talking to strangers, keeping private information private and knowing there are no guarantees that anything will stay private online. Young people should also never agree to meet an online friend without telling their parents.

DeVivo pointed out that Apple founder Steve Jobs himself, when asked if his children had used the new iPad, said they had not.

"We limit how much technology our kids use at home," Jobs said, as DeVivo noted.

"Please open a dialogue with [children] because there will be issues that arise and they need to feel comfortable to speak with you about it," he said. "The biggest part of this is awareness, that too many people are unaware just how dangerous some of this can be."

"We need the education to be right there with the devices, and that's only going to happen by spreading the word about this," DeVivo said.

Dianne Carl, who said she lives in Harford County, called the presentation "very informative," not only for young people but also for adults as well. She said she was eager to share it with her children.

"I know from my own experience that the stuff that this man [DeVivo] is saying is true, and now I can say for a fact it's real and people can trace you or your pictures, incriminating pictures, and you can't take them back," she said.

"I am very private and cautious, but it does make you think about yourself, what I am posting on Facebook," she added.

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