To kick off an Internet safety campaign aimed toward fifth graders in the district, members of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office spoke with Manchester parents Tuesday night about the importance of monitoring their child’s online activity.
“It’s not new for us, we’ve always been proactive," said Diane Pedroza, Ridgeway Elementary School principal. "But this will be the initial piece of the process."
Pedroza said all fifth grade classes in the district — including Whiting School, Ridgeway and Manchester Township Elementary — will hear presentations from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office on May 21, 23 and 30.
Tuesday night, Detectives Karen Schwartz and Jay Dotto discussed Internet safety at the Manchester Parental Advisory Committee, held at Manchester Township Elementary School, to introduce parents to topics such as cyber bullying and how to protect against online sexual predators.
"Once you get in our office, your child is either a victim or a suspect," Schwartz said, "so I’m glad we’re talking to you here."
Schwartz said it is almost impossible for a child to avoid certain technologies, like cellphones and laptops, but warned parents that by letting their child bring a laptop into their bedrooms, they are ultimately letting complete strangers into their homes.
“You almost cannot buy a laptop without a webcam," she said. “Kids go online and develop a relationship with a person — we’re seeing it younger and younger."
Schwartz said by the time a child reaches fifth grade, they’re on Facebook and other chat sites.
“You have to watch everything," said Desire Burns, a Manchester parent. “My son is only 10 years old and has no interest in Facebook yet, but what about when his friends want it?"
Children feel safe online, Schwartz said. They share experiences with friends and family on social networking sites — they try on different identities and interests.
“It’s a way for them to communicate without parental supervision,” which can include sexual activities or harassment of other children, Schwartz said.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven children, ages 10 to 17, are approached while online and solicited, and one in six teens, ages 12 to 17, with a cellphone, has received a sexually suggestive image or video of someone they know, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Technology is a great thing, and it evolves every day. But predators are trying to keep up with them," Dotto said.
Dotto said children are not thinking long term in the fifth grade, or how their activities online could impact their future.
“The Internet is uncontrollable. If you take a photo, and put it online, it cannot be deleted," he said.
“We’re not telling anyone how to parent, but we want to make sure no child gets hurt."