By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T

WEST CHESTER – Sister Margaret Rose Adams, I.H.M., principal of SS. Simon and Jude School in West Chester, feels pretty comfortable around technology.

“I thought I was ahead of the curve,” she said, “but the children are so far beyond us.”

Today’s newspaper headlines and television reports bring us face-to-face with the reality that the 21st century presents parents and their children with a new set of challenges, ones that change practically every day.

On April 26, SS. Simon and Jude was the site of a two-part program titled, “A Pro-Active Approach to Growing Concerns of Sexting (texting with sexually explicit content), Texting and Internet Abuse.”

Paul Sanfrancesco, the director of technology for Garnet Valley School District, who for six years held a similar post with the Archdiocese, led two sessions discussing the topic. The first session was held in the morning with students in grades six through eight. The second, held at night, was for school personnel, faculty and parents.

Sister Margaret Rose said the students were very receptive.

“One thing I have much concern with is that there are so many ways to get on the Internet – computers, cell phones and iPods,” Sister Margaret Rose said.

Sexual material that young people send via cell phones has become a national problem, in some incidences leading to tragic results. Students are also involved in cyber bullying, a high-tech approach to a problem that has undermined education for generations.

Sister Margaret Rose says SS. Simon and Jude has been free of any serious incidents; however, she does have one example of a student crossing the line.

“Someone picked up a cell phone and sent an inappropriate message during a school dance,” she said. “The child never reported it, but the mother mentioned it so that we could tell the children to be careful where they put their cell phones down.”

Of the 150 students in grades sixth through eight, Sister Margaret Rose estimates that 125 possess cell phones. “A lot of times an older sibling gets a new phone and passes it down to a younger child,” she said.

Parents give cell phones to their children for safety reasons. A child can text a parent if there is an emergency, for example.

“You have to teach the appropriate use of cell phones,” Sister Margaret Rose said.

Paul Sanfrancesco takes the positive approach in instructing students and parents about technology’s darker side.

“We’re not trying to scare the parents,” he said. “We are just giving as much information as possible to help them make decisions about their children’s use of technology. Kids have no fear. Technology is so huge. You have to embrace technology but understand what technology can do.”

Parenting in the 21st century, said Sanfrancesco, involves being aware of sexting and cyber bullying and dealing with it by monitoring your children’s use of technology and by exercising Catholic values.

“Parents send their children to Catholic schools for a reason,” said Sanfrancesco, the father of three children enrolled at St. Anastasia School in Newtown Square.

“Being a 21st-century student and a Catholic parent requires us to do more. It’s against our religion to illegally download music from the Internet. Sure, everybody’s doing it. You have to make the connection between Catholic teaching and 21st-century technology. What you are doing has consequences.”

Sanfrancesco is aware that young people often make wrong decisions, but with more information available, the chances increase that a good decision will be made.

Sanfrancesco said his sessions with students are more conversations than lectures.

“It’s interactive – they can question me,” he said. He reminds the students that what they put in cyberspace stays in cyberspace.

“All these children are going to high school and college,” he said. “They are leaving a digital footprint in their lives. You could have 1,000 friends on Facebook. When people look at your footprint they can be making an assumption that may not be true.”

How can youths determine if what they text or upload is appropriate? That’s easy, Sanfrancesco said. “The question you can ask yourself is, ‘Would you be embarrassed if your parents looked at your Facebook page?'”

Sanfrancesco also tells students to “Google your name and find out what’s online about you.”

Deb Bobrowski, president of the SS. Simon and Jude Home and School Association, attended the evening session that she estimated drew over 100 people. “I know a lot of parents were blind-sided by this,” Bobrowski said. “I walked away with tons of information I did not know. I recommend that other schools have these type of sessions for the safety of their children.”

Bobrowski, who has four children at SS. Simon and Jude, said parents have to be “on top of this. Sit down and speak to your children,” she said. “Young kids don’t know what they are doing.”

Bobrowski hopes to continue the dialogue. “I would like to have Paul [Sanfrancesco] come back and talk to the children and the parents again about what they learned,” she said.

Msgr. Francis W. Beach, pastor at SS. Simon and Jude, said the two sessions on social communication were important for all members of the parish.

“Parents are the primary educators and protectors of their children,” he said. “They have a very serious responsibility. Some parents are very sophisticated in technology and some are not. We’re trying to provide the education and awareness that will help them.”

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.