Diane Gensler
Life Member, Hadassah Baltimore

Hadassah Webinar Shows You How to Harness Your (Online) Power

Photo courtesy of Hadassah.
Photo courtesy of Hadassah.

“The measure of a man is what he does with his power.” — Plato

Do you own a cell phone? Who doesn’t this day in age? What about your children? Grandchildren, if you have them? Other family members? Do you own other electronic devices? Do you know what your kids are doing online? Who they are talking to? What do they post? Do you know how to stay safe on these devices? Do you know how to keep your family safe on them?

This was the topic of a two-part Hadassah webinar that I attended called, “Public and Permanent – Social Media” and “Summit for Students and Parents about Digital Safety, Empathy, and Mindfulness” led by Richard Guerry, Executive Director and Founder of the Institute for Responsible Online Cell Phone Communication (IROC).  Guerry will tell you he gave up a higher-paying job for the one he does now to speak to thousands of kids and adults around the country to keep them safe online.

I was pleased that Guerry held up a cell phone and said that when we give kids these devices, we are giving them access to four billion people. I’ve always felt that many parents don’t realize what they’re putting in their kids’ hands. This is really a big deal, and in my opinion, should be given a lot of consideration and forethought. Guerry explains that today’s generation of kids are the first ones to have this technology, and their mistakes are the ones we will learn from.

Photo courtesy of Hadassah.

I waited until all my children were in eighth grade before giving them cell phones because I didn’t want to give them this much access to the world. At this point, I couldn’t hold out any longer due to safety concerns. I was one of the last holdouts. People couldn’t believe I waited that long. This webinar reinforced my belief that it wasn’t such a bad idea to wait.

My husband and I investigated how to limit the apps and access my kids had on the cell phone, but that was more of a challenge than we expected. So we did what everyone else did – We gave them smartphones. We did, however, draft contracts for the phones and discuss online safety. We downloaded an app that monitors their cell phone activity. I tried to keep the lines of communication open with my kids regarding cell phone usage. (Get it -“lines of communication”?!)  Guerry says that you should give your child a cell phone when you are 100% sure that if there is a problem, they will go to a trusted adult. Well, I thought so when we gave them the phones. But now that we have teenagers, I’m not so sure!

Guerry covered a variety of topics and disseminated valuable information. He did sound like a fast-talking infomercial salesperson, so I had to watch the video twice to let it all sink in. Many of the negative things he mentions, such as suicide from online harassment, scholarship loss due to defamatory tweets, kidnap attempts from kids’ gaming communications, houses being robbed from Facebook posts, are all things I’ve heard before but worth listening to his take on them.

He says we need to have a different mindset about technology (which will always be changing regardless). He said the golden rule is to realize that everything we do online is PUBLIC and PERMANENT(despite passwords and privacy settings). He says that remembering this may change your behavior. Because this technology makes our actions more global means that we must be especially mindful of what we post, tweet, text, etc. Guerry says we can harness the power of technology so that it can work for us and not against us.

He tells everyone this basic algorithm: As the speed and convenience of our connections increase, our privacy decreases. We give up security to have fast and easy communication. He reminds us that even our mobile devices should have some kind of security on them, as they can be easily hacked, especially in a place that has public Wi-Fi like an airport lounge or hotel lobby.

I already knew about scams and cyber security. But I also know people who are relatively aware who fall for some of these very devious scams anyway. My kids have told me that their Instagram accounts are private and only their friends can see it. I knew that to be incorrect, and Guerry says that anyone who tells you their account is private is mistaken. He reminds us that there is no privacy, and when I discussed that with our kids and explained how that could be, they said they already knew. I believe my kids were telling me their accounts are private to deter me from cutting them off from social media completely. They know I have qualms about it, and with good reason!

Guerry says that kids are impulsive, and we need to help them think beyond the moment. Ain’t that the truth! Is it possible to get children to think beyond the moment, I wonder. Their brains don’t work that way. (He also mentions that their brains aren’t fully developed until ages 25-27. This is another reason I believe Guerry has this huge speaking gig.)

Guerry got me thinking about how many mistakes so many young people (and adults) have made, and I wonder how we can change this. He provides some tips on how to do this, mostly through conversation, but I feel the need for more.

In my children’s schools, they receive what is called social-emotional  learning (SEL) which has become required, especially post-Pandemic. We are all concerned for our children’s mental health since we’ve seen a decline the last couple of years. But what about training for appropriate online behavior? Why isn’t that covered in schools? My children may listen better to teachers and staff than to the repetitious warnings (known as nagging) that I give them. Plus, the schools have given them devices to use, but what training came with that? School staff knows full well that despite trying to limit access on these devices, kids use them for more than just schoolwork. As adults, don’t we have a responsibility to teach our children in all aspects of this (brave, new) world?

Guerry says this technology should be a positive, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it, even though he understands why many of us are. He reminded me why I’m afraid of it. It needs to be used correctly and thoughtfully. Although I see how adept my kids are at using their cell phones in ways I never would have thought.

According to Guerry, we should harness the power of this technology. It makes me think of the expression, “Use it for good and not evil.” I’m always amazed at how skillful my children are at using technology to complete their schoolwork and projects. I’ve watched my kids create professional looking Power Point presentations and web pages. They have all the information they need at their fingertips through one Internet search. They can view photos from places around the world and take virtual tours. In addition to their ability to navigate screens and web pages so well, my kids can collaborate with classmates on homework assignments and other projects without being together in-person. As technology improves, the possibilities are endless.

Guerry reminds us that our children will be the first generation in the alternate reality or Metaverse. In addition, they will have many more resources than our generation ever did to explore the past and research their own roots and family history. Guerry says we should tell our children we want to build a digital footprint and leave a legacy behind that we will be proud of. I say Amen to that! But we need to help them learn how to do that.

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About the Author
Diane Gensler is a Life Member of Hadassah Baltimore and a lay leader in her synagogue. She is the author of Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020) and occasionally writes articles for organizations of which she is a member, such as the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. She is a certified English and special education teacher. In addition to teaching in public and private schools, she developed educational software, tutored online and wrote and managed online curriculum. She is a Maryland Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a mentor. A native Baltimorean and mother of three, she leads the Baltimore Jewish Writers Guild and holds volunteer positions in her children’s schools and activities.
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