The crowd of 50 – mainly parents with some students – sat silent in the Westfield High School auditorium Tuesday evening, listening when the cyber crimes officer asked which parents had Facebook accounts. Only a few hands went up.
The question was part of a two-hour workshop presented by the high school administration focusing on social media, including Facebook, along with cyber bullying and crimes. Mike Hoose, a sergeant with the county prosecutor's office, kicked off the session with a speech outlining cyber crimes, bullying and social media sites. The workshop was organized as part of the group's bullying prevention program.
Hoose talked primarily about online sexual predators, along with social media sites and cyber bullying. During a speech, which was a condensed version of a speech he gave to intermediate school teachers in February, Hoose stressed to parents that they should know what is going on online.
"You should have an account too," he said.
Hoose talked about how his own children do not have Facebook accounts, but said that it is up to each parent. He said the background in having an account is that parents can familiarize themselves with the working of the site. He encouraged parents to friend their children on Facebook, but said to use this to help their children not to police their child's page, but to serve as a resource.
"You can't play cyber cop," he said. "They will defriend you."
He addressed what he said is a common refrain from parents about following their child's online life.
"They say they don't want to invade their privacy. Are you out of your mind? They live in your house," Hoose said.
Hoose spent much of the time highlighting how online social networking sites could lead to cyber bullying and possibly put children at risk. He said that children should be reminded not to share any personal information online and limit what they put in their status. He said one of the common things he has seen is children unknowingly providing personal information by sharing what sports they play and their position on the team, which could lead a predator to find the child.
"Virtually there are no walls and doors in your house when it comes to Facebook," he said.
Hoose outlined to parents how children will turn Facebook into popularity contests, trying to find as many friends as possible, noting that he routinely sees high schoolers exceeding 300 friends and found 12-year-olds with 3,000 Facebook friends. As part of the process he said the default privacy settings on Facebook – used by many – make their profile pages open to thousands more.
"I'm 44 and I don't know 3,000 people," he said. "If I don't, they don't. There is no way they know them intimately enough to let them into their life."
The presentation on sexual predators drew gasps from the audience as parents listened to Hoose play tapes of predators leaving voicemails for those who they thought were underage and showed mug shots. The criminals highlighted by Hoose had arranged to have the encounters in Cranford, Clark and Kenilworth.
Following Hoose's presentation parents rotated through a workshop on social media and two discussion sessions on how the high school handles cyber bullying and how to handle online experiences for parents and children. The two discussion sessions were closed to the press, with the Board of Education spokeswoman saying the school system wanted to keep the discussion comments confidential.
During the social media workshop, Nancy Latimer, a media specialist at WHS, highlighted the various forms of social media available to students and spoke to parents about how Facebook and Formspring works. Early in her lecture, Latimer seemed to debunk Hoose's warnings of cyber predators.
"Research has shown that they are not hanging out with strangers," she said of student use of Facebook. "It is to extend their real world social life."
Latimer stressed the idea of parents signing up for the same social media programs, but said many children will likely not friend their parent on Facebook or in other programs. Latimer spent much of her presentation on practical approaches to social media, including stressing the increased privacy settings on Facebook and Formspring, the popular question and answer based website
She touched on such sites as Openbook, which can highlight Facebook status updates for those with lenient privacy settings. Searching for phone numbers on Openbook, Latimer pulled up a number of cell phone numbesr posted by people in Facebook status updates, which Latimer said were now available to anyone online.
Stressing that colleges and employers are using Facebook to research applicants, Latimer said that WHS seniors have been engaging in the practice of changing their Facebook user names in order to make it hard to be searched by prospective colleges.
Parents said they learned more about their children's online world during the presentation, but stressed the program was too short and gave only an overview of the entire issue. Hoose's presentation skipped over multiple parts, while the pullout sessions were scheduled for 15 minutes apiece.
"I will speak to my kids about personal information," one parent who only identified herself as Judy said following Hoose's presentation.
Doreen Lobo, the mother of a WHS junior, described the evening as an "eye-opener" while also noting it could have been more in-depth. In a phone interview following the program, she said that students in her discussion sessions said that students helping students have been helpful in preventing cyber bullying and navigating the social media world. She said she would have preferred more time to explore those subjects.
She said at the same time, parents should take a more proactive approach.
"You need (the students) to talk to us about what is going on," she said. "We can help them."
Neither Lobo nor her husband, Adrian, have a Facebook account presently, but she said Adrian started thinking about signing up for the site following Tuesday evening's program.
"At least one of us will be aware of it," she said. "Our kids have already said we won't friend you if you open an account."
Lobo said she plans on doing more research into social media based on information handed out by Latimer and may consider creating her own Facebook profile in the future. She said she was surprised by the size of the crowd.
"I was disappointed that there were not more parents and kids there," she said.
Hoose spent part of his speech saying that he was not surprised by the smaller crowd, noting that his larger crowds come after larger scale news about cyber bullying and the use of social media. He said following the September suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi after his roommate posted a video of Clementi engaging in an intimate act online, almost 150 parents attended one of his lectures.
"If we do not as parents decide to take a proactive step, you will have a problem," he said. "We have a good crowd here but this auditorium should be packed."