Ayrial Miller, 13, takes a quick moment to check her phone at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Chicago. Picture: AP

Chicago - The Grade 7 pupil looks desperate as she approaches. She's just been to a cybersecurity talk at her school, where she raised her hand when asked if she has a social media account - Snapchat, in her case.

Most students at Chicago's Nathan Hale Elementary School, many of them younger than the required social media age of 13, did the same when retired police detective Rich Wistocki inquired about Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or any other number of applications and games.

"Please, please, pleeeeease, don't use my picture or a video of me raising my hand," this particular kid begs repeatedly, despite assurances that she was not caught on camera.

"Don't use mine either," a friend quickly pipes in, as they reclaim and then busily start scrolling through the mobile phones, which all students at Nathan Hale are required to give to their homeroom teachers during the school day.


They are pleading because their parents don't know they're on social media, the gateway to the secret digital lives many of today's teens are living - and that, for a good number, might also include:

  • Using video and chat functions to meet strangers on apps ranging from Musical.ly to WhatsApp and Houseparty;
  • Storing risqué photos in vault apps that look like something as innocent as a calculator - and then trading those photos like baseball cards;
  • Using Text Burner and other apps to harass and bully peers with anonymous messages;
  • Using apps that secretly record messages on Snapchat and other apps before they disappear;
  • Ordering weed and other drugs via any number of social media and communication apps or encrypted websites - or buying something else online that you don't want them to have using prepaid credit cards (makeup maybe?) and having it sent to a friend's house;
  • Buying or borrowing "burner" phones to avoid parental monitoring or when phone privileges are lost.
  • And giving their significant others or friends the password to social media accounts so they can "manage" their accounts when their phones are taken away.

How are they getting away with this in 2018? In a world where the words "cyberbullying" and "predator" have been etched on the collective parental psyche for some time? Well, for one, devices have gotten smaller and the kids receiving them - phones, tablets and iPods - are getting younger and, thus, savvier sooner. The number of apps and games also has exploded and those offerings continually morph.

Many parents are just plain overwhelmed - and often far too trusting, says Wistocki, now a cybersecurity consultant whose packed schedule has him crisscrossing the country to speak to parents and young people since he retired from the police department.

During those talks, he holds up a mobile phone and regularly tells wide-eyed parents:

"When you give this kid, at the ripe old age of 11, this ominous device, it's like giving them the keys to their brand new Mercedes and saying, 'Sweetheart you can go to Vegas. You can drive to Texas, Florida, New York, wherever you want to go .." And with wi-fi, device doesn't just mean a phone, but also tablets and iPods.

And it's often not the usual suspects in her office, but rather a long and diverse parade of students she sees acting one way in person and very differently in the digital world.

"It's shocking - the language and the threats and the mean things that are said," she says. "And I would say, 75 percent of the time, I call a parent and their parent will say, 'Well, no, they said they didn't do that.'

"And I'm like, 'Well - they did.'"