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WILLIAM J. BENNETT: 'Sextortion,' Cyberbullying, Texting -- The Challenge for Parents As Kids Head Back to School

As students prepare to head back to school, and as parents begin to prepare them for this very American annual ritual, a great many concerns are on every mind of every participant in this venture—from parents to students, from teachers to administrators. And just lately, the headlines have given cause for greater and greater concern. For some time we’ve been reading about the threats to (and from) our children in their digital world, threats such as cyber-bullying and sexting. It seems that everyday we learn about a new level of pernicious assault on our children in the digital world.

For example, on August 14, the AP ran a story on a new phenomenon: sextortion, an activity where teens who “text nude cell phone photos of themselves or show off their bodies on the Internet are being contacted by pornographers who threaten to expose their behavior to friends and family unless they pose for more explicit porn, creating a vicious cycle of exploitation.”

What's important to recognize in all these problems is, as one expert put it,  from cyber-bullying to sexting to sextortion, children are putting their heads into the lion's mouth every time they engage in something like this.

And at the same time, mobile phones are being used by younger and younger children, and parents find it more and more important for their children to have phones—for all the right reasons. As parents, as educators, then, our task is to cage and calm the lion, to tame the fire—to keep the jungle, the digital world our children live in, safe. And to give parents peace of mind.

The challenge is anything but small. Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice put out a report warning about online “enticement” and “grooming” of children via text messages and e-mails. And, more recently, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a summit on bullying. What was interesting about the education summit was that Secretary Duncan used a statistic that 900,000 high school students had been cyber-bullied in 2007. But that statistic is three years old and, as with all these statistics about uses and abuses in the digital world, the numbers get worse and worse almost the moment they are published.

The latest research shows that 75% of teens have a cell phone and a vast majority text daily. And over 30% of these online teens have experienced some form of harassment, from cyberbullying to sexting. To some, the answer is to simply take away the cell phones. This may work for some, but not all, not in the digital world of texting communication that one expert has said is not just a part of our children’s world but is their world.

The digital world of cell phones and texting need not be and should not be our children’s whole world. But there is no getting around the fact it will be a large part of it. The task of parents and educators is to make it and keep it safe. Few things in the business of education are more important than a child’s emotional and mental health—and, yes, now, physical safety and health, put at risk by digital communications.

I have longed urged that parents should never surrender in the battle for their children’s health and safety—not during school, not after school. The dangers are great, but now we can all push back and help tame the beasts and fires that threaten. And at the end of the day, parents can have a sense of safety and peace of mind, knowing their children’s digital communications are as safe as parents want them to be.

William J. Bennett is a former U.S. Secretary of Education and a senior adviser to Safe Communications & MouseMail.com, a program that blocks cyber-bullying and sexting messages sent to or from a child’s phone and home computer and that also allows parents to set the times when children can send their digital messages.

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William J. Bennett is the author of “Is College Worth It: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education.” He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.