When Wayne Hipley speaks, parents listen – especially worried, clueless parents.
Mr. Hipley, coordinator of youth ministry at St. William of York, Baltimore, does presentations about the Internet and sites such as MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to catechists, ministers and parents. He did three presentations at the Archdiocesan Institute on Oct. 13 and was surprised by how many people attended them.
He strives to deliver one message: The Internet isn’t private, and while you may be in the privacy of your own home, if you’re on the Internet you’re out in the world.
“One of the things I’ve been telling parents is that companies and universities are hiring full-time people and all they do is go on MySpace and look at profiles,” he said. “More and more they’re going to these pages to get a sense of ‘Are these people we want to hire? Are these people we want as students?’”
He cites the example of a 19-year-old catechist who had pictures of herself and her friends drinking on her MySpace page – and lost her catechist post because of it. Employers can ask to see a MySpace or Facebook page, and a job candidate could refuse, but then they appear as if they have something to hide.
Because they use passwords, Mr. Hipley said, kids feel what they’re doing is secure. But he cites the example of a student who left a computer on at school, and another kid got onto his page and trashed it.
Students list their friends on their pages, and once they list that person, that person can access their page. The problem? It’s a status symbol to have lots of friends. Mr. Hipley, who has a MySpace page, pulls up the pages of two kids at random to illustrate the issue: the first kid lists 220 friends, the second lists 334.
“What happens is that every person you add as a friend, they now have access to your page,” Mr. Hipley said, adding that the pages contain a wealth of personal information. “You don’t know them well, and you don’t know how careful they are – they could access your page in a library and then leave it on, and the next person could be a predator.”
Another concern is when kids have adults on their list of friends.
Predators also troll open chat rooms. But they won’t make a move there; instead they invite the teen into a private chat room. Because computers and cell phones come equipped with cameras, people trade photographs. “They say, ‘Come on, show me a little skin,’” Mr. Hipley said, adding that predators carefully groom kids until they’re comfortable. “You build that sense of intimacy and all of a sudden you’re taking your clothes off for somebody you don’t know.”
One line older predators use with teens, he said, is: You’re very mature for your age.
“Kids are very smart and savvy, but their discernment skills are not great – they make mistakes,” Mr. Hipley said. “People feel because they’re sitting in their house, they’re safe, and they’re not.” He compares the Internet to walking around downtown streets at night. You need to be careful of who you talk to and where you are.
The pitfalls aren’t just for youth, either. Mr. Hipley warns adults that if a teen is IMing you at night, chances are that teen is in pajamas and sitting in bed. An adult minister would never sit on the bed and have that conversation, but IM or text messaging “creates a sense of intimacy that’s not appropriate,” Mr. Hipley said, adding that teens often will reveal things in an e-mail or IM they would never say face to face.
The technology isn’t inherently evil.
“I can’t sit here and ignore it and say it’s a bad technology – that’s useless,” Mr. Hipley said. “I use it for the youth group. I watched the archbishop’s installation on the Internet.”
But parents need to talk with their kids and make sure they understand that the Internet is a public forum, no matter how private a page or e-mail may seem.