RWU Law students are teaching an Internet Safety program designed to protect young people from online snoops, cyberbullying and, more often than not, themselves.

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Law Students Teach Internet Safety

RWU Law students are teaching an Internet Safety program designed to protect young people from online snoops, cyberbullying and, more often than not, themselves.

From the WOONSOCKET CALL: "Teens get tips on social media savvy," by Russ Olivo.

RWU Law students lead the internet safety course at Woonsocket's Community Care Alliance Youth Center.WOONSOCKET, March 30, 2015 – As the youngsters take their seats at computer stations in an office-like cubicle on Main Street, Arwa Noorali  asks if they’ve checked their privacy settings on Facebook lately.

One boy twists around in his chair with a quizzical expression on his face that seems to say, “What’s a privacy setting?”

Noorali isn’t particularly surprised. In the age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the notion of individual privacy doesn’t get much respect from teens and twenty-somethings – often at their peril.

“They don’t understand privacy,” Noorali says. “They’re so caught up with social media and being part of the crowd they don’t get the concept of being careful on the internet.”

A second-year law student at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Noorali, 23, has begun visiting the Community Care Alliance Youth411 Center to change that. She and fellow law student Kasey Doeing, also 23, are part of a grant-funded privacy-education program spearheaded by RWU to protect young people from online snoops, cyberbullying and, more often than not, themselves.  

Typically, youngsters post personal information that leaves them vulnerable to hacking or other forms of exploitation. Or they unwittingly upload photos or comments that may hurt their chances of getting a job in the future.

Kids don’t realize that when they post something on social media, “it’s forever,” says Noorali. And when employers want to learn more about prospective employees, one of the first places they turn nowadays is Google, where a search can easily kick up social media profiles. Even photo-sharing sites like Instagram, designed to kill images after a few seconds, are not safe because it takes even less time to snap a photo of a photo on an iPhone.

The bottom line, says Noorali, is if you don’t want it out there, don’t post it.

“Don’t post anything you would want to take back at a later date,” she says.

Roger Williams University says research clearly shows that youngsters need more education about using social media wisely.

The Pew Research Center, the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, recently reported that 93 percent of teens aged 12-17 are online regularly; 53 percent of teens post their email address online; 20 percent post their cell phone numbers; and 53 percent are connected online to people they have never met.

“Meanwhile, middle school students are at a critical stage in their adolescence, where identity development and a clear sense of individualism and ‘self’ begin to form,” says [Yajaida Dejesus, a seventh grade teacher at the Community Preparatory School in Providence, another school that has participated in the program with RWU Law]. “Adding the social pressure and complications of social media on top of that can be a lot for young students to understand and manage.”

The workshop is broken up into three, two-hour sessions that take place once a week through April 9 at the Youth411 Center, located at 55 Main St. About a dozen youngsters, most in their high school years, are taking part in the program, according to Stump Olsen, the manager of the center.

She says the program is a natural fit for the Youth411 Center, which is focused on helping at-risk children do better in school and in the job market.

Though parents often see their children as the most tech-savvy folks in the house, youngsters typically aren’t so smart about choosing what kind of information should, or shouldn’t, be shared on social media. They need to know that certain things can come back to haunt them when they’re looking for their dream job, perhaps in the distant future.

She says kids are also particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying and need strategies for staying above the fray if they’re going to participate in social media.

“We certainly have many examples of kids who are being cyberbullied,” says Olsen.

Typically, the problems don’t start online, but in the corridors of their schools, where children are exposed to taunts like “slut” or “fag” from not-so-nice peers. The rise of social media has given crass kids an electronic avenue into the psyches of their classmates that doesn’t end at the schoolhouse door.

“These kids are carrying around the bullying with the phone in their hand,” she says.

Some kids in the Youth411 Center workshop clearly appreciate the sometimes-venomous nature of social media. A tweet on Twitter may be no more than 140 letters of the alphabet, but it’s more than enough to spew poison.

“There’s always going to be someone who hates you on Twitter,” says one girl in the workshop. “There’s always going to be someone who wants to make you look bad so they look better.”

But Doeing says kids who grasp the dangers of social media don’t necessarily know what to do to keep from being easy targets. Even adults find it challenging to be active on social media and protect their privacy at the same time.

“Even I had problems with my Facebook privacy settings,” she says.

To make matters more complicated Facebook always seems to be adding new features into the settings menu, so smart users have to stay on top of their accounts, she says.

After the two-hour tutorial on the dangers of the web and some hands-on work with their Facebook accounts, youngsters in the first session of the workshop seemed to have learned some lessons.

“You’ve got to be conscious of who sees what you’re putting out there,” says Adrianne Sooklal, 18, of Bellingham.

Christopher Cabrera, 15, of Woonsocket, thought it would be a good idea to change his password more often, and use different passwords for different sites.

“I’ll be more careful,” he said.

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The first program of its kind in Rhode Island, RWU Law's Internet Safety class is part of the Pro Bono Collaborative’s “Street Law” initiative. Started as a small pilot program last year, this spring it involved RWU Law students working with teachers and students at Central High School in Providence, the Met School in Newport, Community Prep in Providence, Blackstone Academy in Pawtucket, Blessed Sacrament School in Providence and the Woonsocket Youth Career Center.

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