A Call From the FBI – A True Story

In the fall of 2017,  I received a call from the FBI. This was a first for me. The investigator told me that the agency had recently arrested an alleged pedophile and confiscated his computer. On it, they found photographs of a boy wearing a shirt with the logo of my former school. The investigator mentioned some potential names of students but none sounded familiar. To help verify the identity of the child in the photo, the agent  asked if she could come to school to show it to me. When she arrived and handed me the photo in question, my stomach dropped. Sure enough, the boy wearing the school shirt was from our school. I cannot begin to describe the awful feeling of knowing this was one of our children. It was no longer theoretical. It had become real and personal.

The recent news coming out of the SAR Academy, and what I experienced a few years ago, sadly confirms the reality that although the world is generally a safe place, our children can be exploited.   

In both cases –  the one involving my former student and allegedly, the actions of a Middle School rabbi at SAR –  victims were contacted over the internet by adults, posing as a young girl. These incidents should be a clarion call to all parents and educators to closely supervise our children’s use of technology and, specifically, social media.

To be clear, the Internet and social media are neither good nor evil. They are what we make of them.  When the full power and potential of Web 2.0 and social media came onto the scene, the potential for good seemed endless. People from all walks of life talked about the power of these tools to democratize information and ideas; to unleash creativity, and to connect human beings around the globe. At that time, many schools embraced the use of technology as a powerful learning tool, permitting almost unlimited use of the devices without fully grasping its potential dangers. 

It is a moral imperative for our children’s safety to limit technology use.

You see, the dark side of the Internet, smart phones, and social media wasn’t immediately apparent. We know a lot more today, and I cannot stress enough how important it is for parents to limit access to screens. For starters, early educators are reporting that parents are spending less time reading to children, leaving the screen to do the talking, instead of giving children the opportunity to hear language and intonation through parents reading to them. Younger children have devices put in front of them in cars, at restaurants, and too often, at home. The result is that younger children do not know how to make eye contact when speaking with others, and their social skills are diminishing. This leads to all sorts of potential issues both in and out of school.

Almost all schools, including Schechter, have had to address cyber-bullying, and  instances of students taking inappropriate photos and posting them online. No matter how many times our children are told that inappropriate photos and comments posted on the Web remain there forever and can have negative ramifications in getting into colleges and getting jobs, they are developmentally too young to internalize future consequences.  For older children and teens, the social and emotional toll social media can have on them cannot be understated. The overuse can lead to addiction, depression, and even suicide.

It is not okay for us – parents or educators – to throw up our hands in defeat, claiming it is too hard to control. It is our moral imperative for the safety and emotional welfare of our children to limit the use of technology; to raise the age at which we give smart devices to our children, and to closely monitor their activity, even in high school. It may be easier in the immediate term to give in, especially when our children whine that “everyone else” has them. It may feel easier to just “trust” them, and not be vigilant. The potential cost of compromising our children’s emotional, social and physical safety is way too high.  The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has published a robust list of technology solutions & filtering tools.

In a “perfect” world, children would not be given smart devices until at least the eighth grade, a recommendation many childhood experts support.  Delay it as long as possible, but no earlier than the sixth grade. If they have them now, it is imperative that parents limit their use, and check daily on the apps our kids are using. Pre-teens should NOT be on social media – period! They are too young to use it wisely or appropriately. Interestingly, a growing number of techies in Silicon Valley are not permitting their children to have devices at all, for they know better than most about the dangers and pitfalls when children gain access too young.

When used properly and under adult supervision, the Internet and social media can still be forces for good, as well as forces for deeper learning. We will continue to use these devices and tools responsibly at Schechter and teach our students responsible use.  What will you do?

8 Comments

  • Carol Weinstein - September 19, 2019

    As a former SSDS parent, my oldest is a college graduate and youngest is in college, I’m curious to see the responses to your post. I completely agree with you on all points. My experience, however, is and was, that it is a minority’s approach and that our fellow cohort of parents are at best laissez-faire, and at worst, on their own electronic journey unaware of how much time and energy their young child are spending on line.
    Too many parents don’t want to set limits, or enforce them.
    Imho.

    Reply
  • Jennifer Schlosberg - September 19, 2019

    Thank you for this. I also think that parents can join together to set community standards for what is appropriate for our children/students as a whole. Could there be a ritual ceremony around which they receive these devices only after they are educated/trained about how to properly use them? Imagine transforming our community from a whining-until-we-get-a-smartphone or “but so-and-so has one” community to a “I can’t wait until I reach that milestone” community, much like the excitement around receiving their first siddur…

    Reply
    • Alicia Messer - September 19, 2019

      My husband and I just gave our 5th grade daughter a phone this Fall. All of us signed a phone contact and we have several copies. Her contract hangs in her room. The contract addresses expectations of her, restrictions, and consequences. She is limited to the phone on the weekends and during the week she has a smart watch where only 5 numbers are loaded on it and texting is not an option. She is not allowed social media as stated in the contact until we feel it’s appropriate.
      While it’s only been a few weeks this is working for our family.
      There a many uncomfortable conversations parents need to have with our children but this week is an example of how a few uncomfortable minutes could have stopped something much worse.

      Reply
      • Steve Freedman - September 19, 2019

        Thank you for sharing how you structured cell phone use with your daughter. This is a great approach and I hope more parents will embrace it. Dr. Kustanowitz will be hosting a parent program at school which will include presenting to parents sample cell phone contracts and how to implement them.

        Reply
        • Deborah SklarWeiss - September 19, 2019

          We appreciate the strict policy on absolutely no cell phone use at all in school this year. Especially because arrival and departure times are the moments for the kids to chat and experience face to face laughter and communication. Our kids come from different counties and we are always schlepping them to each other’s houses. Thanks for creating a safe space in school to build their connections.

          We put lots of limits on their phone use and hope that there will be more school wide incentives for the kids to read books or even read and respond to things online that are educational online …

          Reply
  • Shulamit Schwell - September 19, 2019

    Thank you for addressing this important topic. I completely agree with you. However, as one parent mentioned above, I fear that many parents are either unaware of the dangers or are not interested in reinforcing the limits they set. Some say it’s too hard, or that they are too tired to reinforce limits. What can be done about that? Not sure if it will work, but how about some sort of a community wide understanding/agreement? And some way to reinforce the agreement?

    Reply
  • Liliya Shikh - September 20, 2019

    Thank you so much for initiating this important conversation! So happy to see many parents sharing school ‘s opinions on cell phone issues.
    I totally agree with school restrictions and feel that phone contract is a great idea!
    Please keep posted re Dr. Kustanowitz informational meeting.

    Reply
  • Natalie Lewis Nussbaum - September 20, 2019

    As a grandparent of six grandchildren, ages 15-29, I have watched devices take over their lives. Collecting devices when they visited used to work. They are older now, I can no longer do that. Devices always on, people are no longer living in the moment, they are not present. The art of conversation is dieing. At live performances, raised cell phones are scanning the events, the owners watching a small screen instead of taking in the full scope of the stage. These devices may keep people connected with the instant gratification reaction. But, I would still prefer to hear the sound of the voice, detect joy, sadness, express interest, empathy, feelings.

    Reply

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