Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

May 7, 2013

Message not sent

Local educators tout dangers of social media but fear it's not getting through

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal


A Kenmore teen is still recovering from being allegedly run over by her classmate with an SUV last month.

The 18-year-old driver, Liana Nieves, was charged with first-degree assault while the 17-year-old victim suffered injuries to her pelvis and spine. The argument between the Kenmore West teens started on Facebook, Twitter and with a few text messages, Town of Tonawanda Police said.

As that example shows, social media can be a wonderful thing, but also dangerous if used improperly, educators say.

"It's like driving a car," said Gil Licata, Starpoint High School principal. "There are advantages and ways you can use it, but you can be reckless."

According to Social Media Report, 90 percent of all teenagers use some form of social media. There are over 1.2 billion Facebook users in the world, by the way.

Some schools have embraced social media as well. Newfane Middle School has a Twitter account, while there is an official Facebook page and Twitter account for the Starpoint School District.

So, high schools are facing the challenge of how to deal with social media, especially when it brings an issue to school. There are teachers and counselors to talk to in the schools. There's anonymous, online cyberbullying reporting sites for a number of schools, Lockport Principal Frank Movalli said, as well as Dignity for All Students Act coordinators in every school in the state.

In September 2010, Gov. David Paterson signed DASA into law requiring all schools to have one person in each school building be trained to handle discrimination and bullying-related issues. The law aims to provide students with a safe and supportive environment free of discrimination and harassment.

The first — and possibly most important — is educating the students. Tom Stack, the principal at Newfane High School, said one of the main instructors of social media safety is the school's resource officer.

Newfane's SRO, Niagara County Sheriff's Deputy Justin Birmingham, incorporates social media dangers as part of his DARE program. DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, teaches kids the dangers of drugs, gangs and violence.

The Niagara County Youth Bureau's talks with health classes touch on the subject of social media, as does Newfane's annual Meet The Coaches Night for student-athletes.

"We do a lot of teaching," Stack said.

At the beginning of the school year, Wilson High School Principal Daniel Johnson speaks with each social studies class about what's expected of students and so on.

"I meet with all students in small groups, face-to-face," Johnson said. "That's one of the areas we cover."

One of the problems is teens don't seem to realize what they post online, stays online, Licata said. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter have privacy settings, but many don't use them.

"Once it's there, you can't take it off," Licata said.

That message is sent to students on a consistent basis, but some may not be getting it.

"Some aren't hearing us, it might be temporary forgetfulness or they don't think of the consequences," Stack said. "Social media is a very informal mode of contact."

Johnson said Wilson prohibits social media use during the school day. If a problem does arise, the school will get involved immediately if it needs to.

The best line of defense might just be the parents. Educators, as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, advise that parents should be aware of what the kids are doing on the computer, laptop, tablet and phone.

Parents should keep the computer in a high-traffic area of the home and monitor what goes on. Talking to the kids is vital, learning what they do online and who they talk to is strongly suggested.

"Learn who their friends are online," Licata said.

"And they should brush up on their social media skills," Stack said. "Learn how to use these technologies."

Being aware of sudden changes in a teen's mood or behavior will help too, as they could be an indicator that something is wrong. Any sudden drop in grades or change in appearance may signal there's a problem.

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.