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Special agent Giangergorio teaches youth how to keep their digital lives safe
Brent Holmes

Special agent Giangergorio teaches youth how to keep their digital lives safe

Privacy: Be safe out there

Desert Companion

How do you teach digital natives to watch their backs online? Not easily

Special agent Giangergorio teaches youth how to keep their digital lives safeKids these days — they’re into everything. Social media? They’re totes into that. It’s fun, sharing every detail of your life, loves and lunches IRT. Teens are instinctive early adopters, alert to the many possibilities of life online, happily tweeting, Snapchatting and Facebooking seemingly every thought that enters their heads. “They’re addicted to the exposure of social media, the instant communication,” says Albert Giangregorio.

But Giangregorio, a special agent with Homeland Security, regularly visits schools to remind teens sand tweens that there’s a side to it that’s a lot less fun. Because you know who else understands the Internet pretty well? Predators. Online sex offenders. Bullies. Trolls. Even identity thieves (yes, it happens to teens). These people also adapt quickly to changing technology. With the metadata from a couple of photos and some clues carelessly scattered through your posts, a stranger can get a good bead on you. Studies suggest some 65 percent of online sex offenders use social networks to learn personal details of potential victims, using that information to ingratiate themselves. Sadly, it can work: According to Homeland Security, about 9 percent of students in grades 7-9 have agreed to meet someone in person whom they first encountered online. The numbers aren’t any more encouraging when it comes to cyberbullying: some 3 million kids miss school every month because of it.

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Giangregorio recently visited The Meadows School — where Page 20 of the student handbook warns, “Online privacy is largely an illusion” — to talk about these issues with students and parents.

“I’m not there to scare the kids,” he says. That could be counterproductive, as the web is so deeply embedded into contemporary life. Kids will be online — as much as eight hours a day, according to some stats. So Giangregorio urges them to be more aware of what they put on social networks, from revealing personal details (hey, is that a school sweater in that photo?) to the info-packed metadata that accompanies online photos (a tech-savvy person can “determine within 10 feet where a photo was taken,” Giangregorio warns).

“The students want to know,” says Jessica Stewart, a librarian and technology integrationist at The Meadows School. “They crave that information.”

“They all bring up stories about friends” who’ve faced virtual harassment or unwanted attention, Giangregorio says. “That happens in every class I go to,” he says.

These are thorny issues, raising a host of hard-to-answer questions: What’s the meaning of privacy in the 21st century? What’s the nature of trust online? If bullying takes place online, how responsible should a school be for addressing it? These questions are at the vanguard of our legal and educational frontiers.

At The Meadows School, at least, Page 20 is clear about that last one, threatening immediate suspension or expulsion for “posting bullying, harassing, abusive, illegal, sexually oriented, obscene, or tasteless material on social media websites.”

Still, growing up as digital natives, many children regard the Internet less warily than their parents. According to Homeland Security, 19 percent of youths regret something they’ve posted — sounds like a lot, but given the daily geysers of information frothing on social media, and the impulsive nature of kids, 19 percent also sounds low, as though teens have a different, digitally mutated threshold of regret. So Giangregorio has a big job ahead.

“Privacy considerations are so much looser than what you and I grew up with,” he says. Which is why education is the best way to deal with predator and bullying problems. “We simply cannot arrest our way out of it,” he says. 

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