According to research presented at the Generation Text event at the Fortnightly club in Summit last week, text messaging has been in existence since the year 2000. While this means that the form of communication has been around for nearly the entire lives of many young people, the fact is not so true of their parents.
This is where Summit's Officer Thomas Rich and business partner Jill Brown come in. On Thursday, the team conducted an educational presentation about the dangers of unsafe cell phone and social media use called "Generation Text."
The session, which was sponsored by the Fortnightly Club, served to inform parents of middle school students about serious issues associated with the new technology, such as sexting and cyberbullying, which can affect kids through text, picture, and e-mail messages, as well as social networks such as Facebook.
"Our big thing is that we're going to tell you what you can do and how you can stop it," Brown said. Rich added, "Instead of scaring everybody, you guys will come away with something that you can use and go home and educate your kids."
The duo has organized sessions like this one at local schools and venues in Union, Scotch Plains, and Summit and is hoping that with the support of area parents and administrators, they'll be able to continue spreading their message.
"It can't just be parents. It can't just be kids. It's got to be all of us," said Brown of the solution to the texting and technology problems facing today's youth.
Detective Sergeant Rich, head of the Summit Police Department's juvenile bureau, has been educating parents, students, teachers, and administrators about the potential dangers of modern technology for two years as a D.A.R.E. officer in the public schools.
Generation Text evolved from this knowledge of the subject matter and a sexting presentation he created which was initially presented to law enforcement officials.
"It was something I did as a D.A.R.E. officer and it became so popular that we partnered up in action and decided to cover…the hot topics of texting, sexting and, with the kids, cyberbullying," Rich said.
About six months ago, Rich was introduced to Brown by a fellow police officer. Brown, a Westfield resident and mother of three, is the founder of ItsMyLocker.com, a safe social networking site that she created for kids to use with their parents, teachers, coaches, and other trusted adults.
She calls the site "the stepping stone to Facebook" and explained that it teaches young people how to safely navigate online social networks. This is accomplished through the absence of private messaging, which allows for open communication, and the fact that parents have automatic access to their child's information.
"The idea is that you're able to teach them safe online behavior so when they do make a mistake, it's open, you can see it, and you can say 'hey, you never write your cell phone number on there," Brown said.
She created the site after having worked with young people in youth ministry for 10 years and watching too many kids suffer the negative consequences of immature internet use.
"I had to do something. I had to do something for my kids and everybody else's kids," she said.
Since meeting, Rich and Brown have been working together to bring their program around the state, adapting it to educate students, parents, counselors, officers, and others who are affected by unsafe texting and want to know what they can do to stop it.
Last week's presentation was an encore of a previous Generation Text event that had been scheduled for March of this year. Due to inclement weather, many were unable to attend the first event and requested that it be held a second time. Since March, the Generation Text program has been updated according to participant feedback and the ever-changing technology trends.
The revised presentation lasted approximately an hour and a half, during which Rich and Brown shared real-life stories about the dangers of sexting and cyberbullying, provided authentic examples of harmful AIM conversations, text message and photo exchanges, and Facebook status updates.
The examples came from real teens, many of whom were anonymous Summit residents.
In addition, Brown and Rich provided concerned parents with suggestions for preventing their children from finding themselves in potentially dangerous situations as a result of these technologies and media. They offered practical tips on how to efficiently monitor a child's phone and internet activity.
Some examples included taking cell phones away at sleepovers, enforcing a "no delete" rule so that all text messages can be reviewed, knowing your child's passwords for his or her cell phone and for internet Web sites, checking the history of internet activity on your child's computer, and encouraging open communication between parents and kids.
"This is controllable," Brown said. "We just have to teach people what to do."