Independence, Cuyahoga Heights schools to hold internet safety seminar

by Martin McConnell

In an effort to help parents and guardians of students understand the pros, cons and dangers of today’s social media-driven world, Independence, Cuyahoga Heights, and Indy Alive, a community partnership that “provides support for social issues facing youth and parents,” joined forces on May 4 to host speaker Jesse Weinberger.

Weinberger, a former software developer and nationally recognized internet safety speaker, has seen the drawbacks of social media abuse unfold firsthand. After conducting talks with students for the past 15 years, she said data between school districts on how teens use social media as it relates to sexual activity is shockingly similar.

“I travel all over the country, and I was here in Independence schools, where we arranged for presentations for fifth [through] eighth graders,” she said. “I give the parents tips–what apps to look out for.”

Weinberger said that for both students and parents, the dangers of mobile app overuse can be nothing short of lethal. In Weinberger’s experience, she said that the Coronavirus pandemic was perhaps the single most damaging thing to student minds.

“I’ve seen a huge impact in the numbers after COVID,” she said. “Even pre-COVID, things were getting [worse], but during COVID, when we were hunkered down and isolated–isolation is never good for mental health, especially for adolescents.”

According to Weinberger, FBI data indicated that instances of sex trafficking and sexual predation “shot through the roof” during the pandemic. Additionally, the rate of children with severe mental health problems has risen dramatically.

Weinberger said it’s generally easier for her to reach students with her message than parents. Raised in a world that has always had social media, this generation of children tends to understand internet safety just as well, if not better than their parents, she said.

“I find that the kids are easier to move, 100%,” she said. “The kids are sick of the parental hypocrisy of ‘mom and dad say no phones at the dinner table, but dad has his.’ They’re sick of the hypocrisy of ‘kids are addicted,’ but [parents] are more addicted. The kids get it.”

Even still, Weinberger said kids today are so acclimated to the toxic social media culture, they may not even notice it. Much like a fish that does not realize it is surrounded by water, this generation of children does not realize the level of danger they could be in, she said.

Weinberger offered the advice of “no phones until your child is 13 years old.” While she admitted it might not be as feasible a task in today’s world, she still offered it as a guideline.

Independence Middle School principal Jamie Vanek attended the presentation, saying he wanted to stay informed as a principal for his students, while also taking in the information as a father to two young children.

“I don’t just want to put my head in the sand and say, you know, we’re not going to talk to anyone about this,” Vanek said. “I want to stay informed. I want to stay ahead.”

Vanek said the hope is that between his district, the Cuyahoga Heights district, and Indy Alive, the three can create a healthy environment for students and their mental health.

As children receive more technology at younger ages, Vanek said the schools are trying to educate as best they can. “We’re just trying to make sure that as your usage and screen time is increasing, you’re just using it more responsibly.” ∞

Pictured are (l-r) IMS Principal Jamie Vanek, presenter Jesse
Weinberger, Independence Clerk of Court Angie Zidanic and
Cuyahoga Heights Middle and High Principal Scott DeTray,
posing after the program. Photo by Martin McConnell.