Tips for safe surfing, texting, posting online: Expert talks to La Jolla parents about the power of the Internet


By Ashley Mackin

As Internet safety expert Jon Moffat began his presentation on March 6 to parents with kids in La Jolla schools, he acknowledged that the magnitude of the Internet and all that’s accessible to children online make parents want to “throw every electronic device off a cliff.”

However, he argued, that’s not the answer. Rather, informed use and setting good examples for children is a more constructive way to go. “Technology is a tool,” he said. “It’s like a hammer, I could use it to build something beautiful or I could beat someone to death with it. It depends on how I’m taught to use it.”

Moffat spoke to parents of students attending La Jolla Elementary School, Muirlands Middle School, Pacific Beach High and La Jolla High in La Jolla High’s Parker Auditorium, courtesy of the Community Education Committee of the La Jolla Cluster Organization.

Of his presentation, Community Education Committee Chair Melinda Gaffney said, “Protecting your digital identity and being aware of how your online reputation affects your real-world reputation is of critical importance to this next generation, so I’m thrilled to have Jon here with us.”

During the last 10 years, Moffat has worked with students, parents and educators to promote cyber-safety, and he emphasizes the value of having a non-judgmental conversation with teens and setting a good example when it comes to using the Internet.

Have a contract with your kids

It starts with a contract that parents and their children agree upon. “Just like you had to sign a contract to get the technology in your home, your kids should have a contract to keep it,” he said.

The ideal contract includes several points, the details of which parents can negotiate. “Your kids shouldn’t have the final say, but they should have some say in the development of the contract,” he said.

There are more than a dozen points on the contract that teach children technology is a privilege not a right. For a free template, e-mail Moffat at

One suggestion is to mutually decide where the smartphone goes at night. “Every night the phone must be charged; that can be done in any room, but the key here is not the bedroom. There should not be phones in kids’ bedrooms at night,” he said.

He also argued for not letting students take phones to school. In the event of an emergency, the school can reach the student (because, after all, phones aren’t supposed to be out during class).

The negotiable facet is when it comes to after-school activities, such as sports, hanging out with friends or any time the child is not in class or at home. The contract can be adjusted according to parent/child negotiations, the ages and parental values.

Teach them that anything they do on a device can be seen

Once an agreement is formed, the next step is to instill good judgment. “We want to teach kids that anything they do on a device can be seen. I ask kids if they’ve ever sent a text they wouldn’t want their parents to see — for the most part they say ‘yes,’ ” he said. “They put these things (texts, tweets and photos) out thinking no one will see it. They don’t understand the power of it.”

One reason some people feel what they post on the Internet will not have repercussions is the illusion that their identity is hidden. Several anonymous forums (such as and social media apps (Twitter and Instagram) use screen names, so real names do not need to be used.

However, a surprising amount of information can be found by searching for a screen name — and Moffat proved it. He showed a screen grab of all the Google results that came from searching for a screen name, including the user’s address.

Further, several apps, such as Twitter and Instagram, have “geo-tags” that indicate where the post originated. Moffat showed an Instagram post that originated less than a mile from the high school.

Even with apps such as SnapChat, which allows users to send videos that are deleted within a couple of seconds of being viewed, there are programs that download all sent videos.

Know your kids’ apps, passwords

In an effort to bridge the digital gap, Moffat recommended parents set the rule that all apps, screen names, games and social media accounts be cleared with them before they are downloaded. Parents can ask what the app is, what it does, the privacy settings and if their kids know how to block someone.

He also recommended parents have access to all their children’s passwords. One idea that came from teen focus group was to write all the passwords down, put them in a sealed envelope, only to be opened when parents feel the need. That way, the child feels trusted and respected, but the parents have access if necessary.

If any of the apps are surprising to parents — or have content parents question — Moffat said parents or guardians must not demonize the technology nor the child. “If kids are worried about being punished or having their phone taken away, they won’t talk to their parents or ask questions. If they can’t ask their parents, they will likely get their information from their friends.”

The website offers step-by-step instruction on how to remove accounts from mobile devices, which parents may find helpful in some situations.

Smartphones as witnesses

Using smartphones can be a great tool for documentation, Moffat said. For example, phones that take video can document examples of bullying or harassment in real life. Also, if someone texts or posts something inappropriate, smartphones allow users to take a screen capture to document it.

On an iPhone, if a user holds the top and center button at the same time, a screen capture of whatever is currently on screen gets saved. On an Android, the power and home button will take a screen grab.

Having that documentation can help determine whether inappropriate online communication is harassment.

“If someone posts something mean or harassing and the person responds with something instigative, it’s a fight. If they respond with ‘please stop’ or ‘please leave me alone,’ and the person continues (it’s harassment),” he said. “You have to have proof that you asked them to stop and they kept doing it.”

Several parents asked Moffat what he thought was the best age to get a child a smartphone.

He answered: “When you are ready to have the talk. That talk. The everything talk. And the best place to have it is in the car, because you don’t want to look your child in the eye when you have this conversation and they don’t want to look you in the eye.”

What to learn more?

Contact Internet safety expert Jon Moffat by e-mailing


■ A copy of his presentation

■ Parental links to laws that apply to cyber-bullying

■ Downloadable programs that allow parents to manage mobile devices