Social media fears stalk college classrooms

Mahurangi College has stepped up efforts to educate students about the dangers of social media after girls as young as 11 were propositioned and asked to post nude photographs of themselves online.

The communications came to light after students reported concerns about the behaviour of one online predator in particular.

When the school investigated, it found that some Year 7 and Year 8 girls had more than 1000 followers on their Instagram accounts.

In a letter to parents, assistant principal Christina Merrick said it was clear that the girls could not know all these people and it left them vulnerable.

“When students accept friend invitations from people they do not know, this is when they are stepping into dangerous territory,” she wrote.

She said it was interesting to note that many girls spoken to under the age of 13 had Instagram accounts, even though the networking service recommended users were aged 13 or above.

Warkworth Police acting station sergeant Jon Williams said the police were investigating one online predator in connection with the Instagram incidents involving Mahurangi College students, and the matter had been referred to the North Shore Child Abuse Team.

Snr Constable Williams said whether it was an offence to ask a child for a nude photograph of themselves was something of a grey area, though a predator could risk prosecution for “online grooming” of a child.

He said if a predator received a nude photograph of a child under 16 then it would clearly be an offence, as they would then be in possession of an objectionable publication.

Sgt Williams said there was only so much the police could do to stop online predators and it was critical children were better educated about the dangers and parents took more responsibility for their children’s activities online.

He was especially critical of parents who allowed their children to be up all night alone in their rooms with their devices.

“They are opening kids up to bringing predators into their bedrooms. They would not let some pervert come and sit in their 12 year old’s bedroom. Yet they will let them go online and talk openly with these people,” he said.

Sgt Williams said he gave a talk to Year 9 students at the college recently and asked them who had a device in their room at night.

“Virtually every single hand in the room went up. That amazed me.”  

Meanwhile, Ms Merrick says Mahurangi College has created a social media project team that has both students and teachers working on incorporating education about the responsible use of social media into more areas of the curriculum.

“As a school, we are going to be talking to all of the students about responsible use of social media and ensure all of the girls know about privacy settings and how to be safe online. These messages are part of our programmes, but we will go over them again,” she says.

“We also hope to hold digital workshops for parents at the beginning of next year where our senior students will run workshops on educating parents about social media, Google Classroom and much more.”

Ms Merrick said in this instance, no girls were harmed, though they were disturbed by the predator’s behaviour.

She urged parents not to let children sign up for social media accounts until they met the age guidelines.

“Some children are just too young to navigate the complexity of running such accounts,” she said.

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