Billy Watts Jr. was agonizing, but no one knew it.
Actually, the problem wasn’t a lack of people who became aware, but a lack of those in positions to intervene. Tragically, it wasn’t until the 17-year-old Renaissance High student’s body was found that his family learned about the alerts. Billy had telegraphed final thoughts hours before his suicide on social media, but his closest relatives had never accessed the anguished cyber-journal.
Dr. Jelani Jabari wants to help parents and guardians prevent more losses like Billy’s. Through his consulting company, Pedagogical Solutions, Jabari educates adults about ways to identify threats that arise through the use of social media and how to protect young people.
With summer’s arrival, students everywhere tend to more heavily engage with friends and acquaintances, using cell phones, tablets and lap tops. Particularly for adolescents too young to drive or stray from home without supervision, school break might be a time to spend hours on end in “chat rooms” or online with strangers.
“There’s a complete digital divide between where adolescents are and where we are,” says Jabari, a former Detroit Public Schools administrator and teacher. “The vast majority of young people are pretty ethical and they do the right thing while they’re online, but there are some who are getting into all kinds of things, and their parents don’t know about these cataclysmic events until they wonder who in the ‘h-e double hockey sticks’ is living in the house with them.”
Known for advising teachers on strategies to deliver curriculum in more engaging ways, Pedagogical Solutions has consulted for schools and districts throughout Michigan, the United States, and as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia. Jabari says his own status as a father led him to expand from an academic focus and delve into parental awareness of the cyber world.
“Even if your child has never done anything wrong you have to check in and be sure about whom they’re communicating with,” he says.
“If a young person or an adolescent wants to access a particular space badly enough, they’re going to do it. The best way to keep children safe is to develop a comprehensive plan that includes a strong, communicative parent-child relationship coupled with monitoring software on the devices being used.”
Basic parental controls, including monitoring software like Qustudio, aren’t enough, Jabari says. Moms and dads should regularly talk with their kids about what information they share online and what web sites and social media are appropriate. They also should establish a contract with their children that lays out the guidelines they must follow for their protection against online predators and adult material.
In a forthcoming book on the topic, Jabari recommends sharing rules in the form of an acronym, SAFETY:
S – Stay in the tech space. For example, Facebook communication should remain on Facebook, not extending to unauthorized meetings in person.
A – Avoid revealing personal information, like name, phone number, address, or school attended to strangers.
F – Flag any content not suitable. If someone tries to send or share something inappropriate, alert a parent or guardian.
E – Empower yourself by learning as much as you can about ways someone might harm or exploit you online, such as requesting inappropriate photos or videos that can be broadly distributed.
T – Tell a trustworthy adult if you’re being harassed, threatened, or if something online makes you feel uncomfortable.
Y – Yield your right to safely explore tech spaces to no one. Allow your online experience to be positive and productive.
“A lot of this can be massaged based on the child’s age,” Jabari says.
Traditional parenting and family bonding through communication and trust-building more effectively translates to safety in tech spaces than relying on cyber-safeguards, he adds.
“Young people are incredibly savvy about how to get around parental controls,” such as logging into social media sites by using a friend’s password, says Jabari. “It’s imperative for us to build that strong, communicative relationship where we’re not just warning them about the dangers, but also sharing dialogue.”
While Jabari’s recommendations can be applied year-around, Sisters Code founder and tech strategist Marlin Page agrees summer months present unique opportunities for dangerous exposure through social media.
“It definitely increases while school is out, and I think it’s also the time when you see a spike in questionable behavior online,” says Page.
Page, who instructs parents and youth in technology workshops, says summer is often when “risqué” moves, like posting indecent photos, cause youth to jeopardize their own future.
“I tell my daughter, who’s about to graduate, that scholarship scouts are working,” she says, “checking your Twitter and your social media.”
Encouraging offline activity, like exercise or outings, is important, too, adds Page.
Jabari says genuine interest and concern translate well with youth.
“I have a big heart for young people,” he says. “They deserve our very best.”