After 14-year-old Naika Venant stunned the world with the broadcast of her own suicide on Facebook Live last month, controversy swept across the web about whether social media should do more to discourage or prevent suicides.
On Thursday, web giant Google joined Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, at W.R. Thomas Middle School to teach young students safe ways to use social media and websites.
Safe use of the internet has become a central issue of social media, not only because of the Miami Gardens girl, but because her suicide was just one of several similar episodes of young people and adults using these systems to kill themselves publicly or spark chaos with so-called fake news items, identity theft and information hacking.
Curbelo, in remarks to the dozens of students gathered at the school auditorium and in interviews afterward with reporters, said social media leaders should help build a culture of online security and safety.
“Social media and the internet are wonderful,” Curbelo told the students, all of whom raised their hands when the congressman asked if they had social media accounts. “But this new world of social media has some risks.”
Social media and the internet are wonderful. But this new world of social media has some risks.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo
When Curbelo asked what those risks were, none of the students mentioned suicides. One shouted “Fake news,” another raised his hand and said “hackers,” and still another cited “stolen identity.”
Outside the auditorium, Curbelo was more explicit about the risks when talking to reporters.
“The goal is to create a culture of respect for human life, of responsibility on social media,” said Curbelo in answering a question about Naika’s suicide. “I think a lot of people become desensitized to issues on social media, maybe because they’re not in direct contact with the person, maybe because they’re hiding behind a username and no one really knows who they are.”
Curbelo urged parents to be particularly vigilant when their children surf the web.
“When your child is on social media, it’s as if they were out somewhere interacting with people,” Curbelo warned. “The same concerns you would have with your child going to the mall, you should have when your child is logged on to Facebook or Twitter or any social media.”
The Google program of emphasizing internet safety to students was created in collaboration with the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the iKeepSafe website.
The presentation at W.R. Thomas Middle School, 13001 SW 26th St., was led by two young Google representatives, Wendy González and Joe Abernethy. They focused largely on ensuring the security of personal information such as passwords, photos, bank accounts and home addresses.
González and Abernethy organized several games for students, including a competition between two boys and two girls to see who wrote the most difficult password to break.
The winner, selected by a Google algorithm, was Katheryn, who wrote a password with a mixture of letters, numbers and exclamation points.
Facebook has also taken steps to ensure user safety.
Following Naika’s suicide, Facebook sent a statement to the Miami Herald. It said: “Our Community Standards regulate what kinds of content can be shared on Facebook. Our teams work around the clock to review content that is being reported by users, and we have systems in place to ensure that time-sensitive content is dealt with quickly.”
Follow Alfonso Chardy on Twitter: @AlfonsoChardy