■ Hanna C. Lacsamana
“Influencers” have become an Internet buzzword, but little does the word apply to parents and adults who are responsible for children, especially when they face risks as soon as they gain access to the Internet and get a hold of electronic devices.
Lawyer Aimee S. Torrefranca-Neri, then undersecretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, said parents must be the biggest influencers and educators as the new generation of youth are the most affected with the impacts of digital technology.
Neri said children as early as nine years of age are using the Internet to complete school-related activities and connecting with relatives and friends through the use of social networking platforms and online messaging.
“While the use of the Internet and electronic devices has contributed an undeniable positive change to society, exposing children to various online content and social network sites pose risks to their safety in the virtual setting,” Neri said, adding that providing such devices to children may be an important decision for parents as this bears an added responsibility required in using these devices and the Internet.
Unaccredited group’s online recruitment of BCNHS students
It was not very long after school year 2023-2024 opened on Aug. 22, 2023 for all public schools nationwide when the management of Baguio City’s largest public secondary school in terms of student population called around September for a general assembly of parents and teachers by grade level, a tradition that resumed its face-to-face setup in 2022 when restrictions were lifted following the Covid-19 pandemic.
After the customary sharing of post-enrolment updates and important reminders and announcements on how the new school year would be like, Baguio City National High School (BCNHS) Principal Whitney Dawayen appealed to the parents of more than 7,300 students enrolled for the school year to give extra attention to their children’s use of cell phones and other gadgets where they can access the Internet and use social media.
The appeal stemmed from a report that a group not recognized by the school as one of its legitimate organizations is using the name of BCHNS in recruiting students to join the organization.
The report came from BCHNS teachers and staff themselves, who have seen the group’s account in a social media platform. They read its “content” and were alarmed upon learning that anyone including their students can just click the link provided in some of its posts that will lead to a registration form to become a member.
The concern became “viral” within the BCHNS campus and in no time came to the attention of school authorities.
After making an initial check, Dawayen said they believe the organization seems to be one of those the government has identified of supporting or being directly involved with the underground movement, something the organization vehemently denied, calling the accusation as a form of red-tagging.
Dawayen presented the concern to the parents during the September 2023 assembly.
In expressing alarm, he said the group is misleading BCNHS students because it entices them to join the group and support its advocacies by carrying the name of the school in its social media profile, without the school’s consent.
Dawayen emphasized BCHNS students should only be joining legitimate school organizations and clubs that help in molding their leadership skills and contribute to their overall development.
The school also does not want their students to join activities that direct their attention from their studies that may adversely affect their future.
In an interview with the Midland Courier this month, Dawayen said they believe none of the students were recruited by the said group, which is under investigation upon the school’s request and subject to cyber patrolling by the Police Regional Office Cordillera (PRO-Cor) through its Regional Anti-Cybercrime Unit and the Baguio City Police Office.
PRO-Cor Director David Peredo Jr., in a letter to Dawayen on Sept. 29, 2023, said the report about the group was submitted to the PNP Anti-Cybercrime Group portal for possible deactivation of its social media account.
Midland Courier had reached out to the concerned group for comments about the school’s action but it has yet to give a statement.
Appeal to parents: ‘Be your children’s main influencers’
While the school had already sought the assistance of authorities, Dawayen said it is most important that parents and guardians are the first to warn their children if they themselves come across similar groups online.
“We are doing this for the safety and welfare of the children. Parents, be our partners in making sure our children are safe and growing up properly,” Dawayan said.
But for a public school like BCNHS with more than 7,000 students, educating students on digital or online safety is not an easy task.
In a separate interview, Ortez B. Gabol, BCHNS Senior High School (SHS) assistant head, said the school needed to act promptly to ensure their students’ online safety.
Since most of their students use cell phones and have social media accounts, he said they come across all sorts of information in the Internet that may be helpful or disadvantageous to them.
“Students, especially those with personal circumstances such as family problems and are experiencing depression, may resort to social media and it will be easy for them to be brainwashed by what they read online, so we need parents’ help in guiding our children when they use online platforms,” Gabol said.
He made it clear that he personally thinks there is nothing wrong with organizations that hold rallies to criticize or demand for change and improvement from the government and other causes.
However, he said he would rather that the students spend more time in school than join rallies and activities that keep them from their studies.
“Nagiging pangit ang image nila dahil iba ‘yung ginagawa nila. Maganda sana if brotherhood ang intention, where they help each other in solving or helping solve problems. But they form a group to rally against the government, which for us is not supposed to be because instead of helping, they become part of the problem,” Gabol said.
He said it is risky for the youth like their students to join causes not knowing what these are for, especially if these are believed to be associated with the armed revolution movement.
“These students, (when) recruited young, may have been aware of issues in the society, but they may still do not understand kung ano talaga ang ipinaglalaban nila. Some of these are valid, such as promises by the government na napapako o hindi nararamdaman iyong mga pangakong (pagbabago). But our instruction as teachers is to advise the young ones to study for their future,” he said.
When students lose their focus on their studies, the blame he said, will be on teachers.
“We are the second parents of students. As we are under the Department of Education, we have that obligation, which includes not allowing recruitment of our students to happen inside the school,” he added.
Thwarting potential harm through proactive online safety policies
Among the school’s measures against the online recruitment was to subject their students to orientations led by invited resource persons from the Armed Forces of the Philippines who conducted a two-day lecture on online recruitment and provided guidance on how to spot groups with similar intentions.
This they believe thwarted the possibility of the school being infiltrated by unaccredited groups and had effectively warned its students about them.
For the SHS, which has around 1,800 students, Gabol said all class advisers were instructed to conduct a homeroom meeting with parents to apprise them on the matter and to always advise their children not to join such groups.
However, the recruitment of members by an unaccredited group is not the only concern about students’ online safety which the BCNHS had to deal with.
Using social media versus risks students face online
Three months into school year 2023-2024, Gabol as SHS assistant head, he was faced with cases of untoward behaviors in social media among students since classes opened in August.
In November, he created and became the “administrator” of a chat group or “group chat” – a feature offered by a popular socmed platform. The group chat is exclusive to him and all SHS class presidents primarily for reminders, advice, and announcements.
The platform has also become an effective tool in monitoring and reporting of student concerns, such as cases of cyber-bullying, inappropriate behaviors towards the opposite gender, vaping, and other untoward behaviors observed in classes.
“With the big number of our students, we realized the crucial role of class presidents. Aside from meeting in person, we communicate in the group chat, which helps a lot since teachers cannot see everything that is happening in their classes,” Gabol said.
A particular case involved a grade 11 student who shared an inappropriate image of a grade 10 student in a group chat. The grade 10 student reported to the grade 11 student’s class president, who immediately caused the removal of the offending photo from the group chat. Gabol said the grade 11 class president reported the matter through their SHS chatgroup.
Another incident involved group chat conversations whose members were BCNHS students and students from other universities, which led to cyber-bullying that became a subject of a complaint.
“When these are monitored by the class presidents, they report to me. I call for the advisers and inform them about their students’ involvement in such incidents. We refer the matter to the prefect of discipline for investigation. If found true, we call the parents and agree on how to address the misbehavior. This procedure is based on the DepEd student manual,” Gabol said.
Also part of the intervention is integrating digital safety in class subjects where advantages and drawbacks of online technology are discussed.
“I also reiterate to teachers and parents that they should discourage students from creating their own group chats or one that does include a teacher. We should only have one group chat that includes the adviser or subject teacher and the students, used for online school work and tests,” Gabol said.
Emelyn Fabro, a parent of a BCHNS student, said she fully supports the proactive online safety measures undertaken by the school because it does not only assure the security and safety of their children while they are in the campus but also keep them from bad influences when they access the Internet.
As a parent who has heard a first-hand account of someone who had joined a cause-oriented group but left because such person cannot see a bright future in going to different places to hold anti-government rallies, Fabro also does not want that her children are approached and enticed to join similar groups, and especially when they use deceit by using the name of the school without its knowledge.
She suggests for the school to come up with more activities that mold students into productive members of the community.
Fabro added it is important for parents to keep open communication with their children so that they always come to their parents or teachers for guidance when they encounter things online that they do not yet fully understand.
‘Students’ online safety should start in the family’
Gabol acknowledges the difficulty of monitoring everything their students do when accessing the Internet, reason why they constantly remind them about online safety and involve parents in the process.
“Wala kaming control on how they use their gadgets on their own time. So the way parents educate their children with good values and digital safety practices at home coupled with constant reminders from teachers really matter in keeping students away from threats they may face online,” Gabol said.
He added communication technologies will continue to evolve, but arming the youth with knowledge against online threats and rearing them to become upright citizens would always go back to having a strengthened basic social unit of society – the family.
“But we have to accept not everyone has a perfect family. So we are happy when students seek for our guidance because it helps us address their concerns, as parents would for their children,” Gabol added.
(This story was produced under the #WebSafeandWise Media Fellowship by Probe Media Foundation Inc. and ChildFund Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this story are not necessarily those of PMFI and ChildFund Philippines.)