When there's a dark world waiting just a click away, it's a wonder how much parents have to do to protect their children from viewing inappropriate content on the internet.
Then along comes Jeffy.
Thursday, school officials sent a letter to Garfield Elementary School parents regarding a recent rash of obscene and disturbing behaviors by second- and third-graders. These comments and gestures, perpetrated mostly by boys, the letter stated, are tied to YouTube videos featuring a puppet called "Jeffy the Rapper."
"I've been a lady working in education for 20 years. I know that kids can be kids," said Jodi Kennedy, the principal of Garfield Elementary School. "But, this video is crossing a line in several areas ... I don't know if this is what these people are intending, but it looks kid-friendly and it's not."
The channel-which has more than eight hours of content posted, with many of its clips garnering tens of millions of views-features a wannabe rapper that alternates between infantilized behavior such as referring to men's genitalia as "peepees" and sticking a pencil up his nose, to disturbing quips including the use of racial slurs about black people and singing about perpetrating violent crimes. At various points, Jeffy pantomimes fondling his crotch and humping a box of Cheerios, among other obscene acts.
A parent of students at Garfield Elementary School, who declined to be identified to protect his children from potential repercussions-said his child saw a video featuring Jeffy at a friend's house. Upon watching the clip for himself, he expressed anger and frustration at its existence.
"The one video I did watch, it's puppets. It starts off very simple to the point where it's stupid and I can see a second- or third-grader would think it's funny. They hook you and get you watching and then-boom!-they get into all the vulgarness," the parent said. "The fact that it's there is very disturbing. The views in those videos are disgusting."
This content is being reflected by the behavior of the young boys at Garfield Elementary School, Kennedy said, actions that prompted to school officials to discipline some of the boys, as well as speak with them and their parents privately regarding the inappropriateness of these actions.
"Unfortunately, we've had a lot of hip thrusting standing in the lunch line. We've had some of Jeffy's words, which are words I would not like to repeat," Kennedy said, noting the puppet harps about murdering a woman for "street cred" in at least one clip. "Jeffy doesn't treat women very nicely, he's got some really inappropriate terms for them."
Along with derogatory gestures and comments to fellow students, Kennedy noted one boy shoved a pencil up his nose and at least one other may have soiled himself mimicking the string-operated Jeffy.
Kennedy said the school's firewall and technology-use restrictions mean students are unable to view non-educational content in school limits. While students are able to meet, talk about and act out Jeffy's sketches on school grounds, they're viewing this content outside, often at home. She added without audio, the clips don't appear inappropriate at first glance. If parents hear the audio, however, they're immediately introduced to Jeffy's vulgar antics-something that may slip through the cracks if the child is wearing headphones when they're viewing the clips.
"Sometimes when kids have headphones plugged in we don't know what they're listening to. So (we're) just trying to increase that awareness for our parents of what kids might be looking at at home," Kennedy said. "Because if they're hearing about it here, and if their friends talk about it here, and they have a device at home, they're probably going to take a look at it."
Kennedy said, for the most part, students at Garfield Elementary School have been acting in a generally respectful and responsible manner until about a week ago. The "Jeffy the Rapper" phenomenon seemed to spread "rampantly," Kennedy added, just suddenly becoming an issue among the student body.
There are indications students at Nisswa Elementary School and Forestview Middle School have watched and shared "Jeffy the Rapper" content as well, based on parental observation.
Lowell Elementary School Principal Todd Sauer said it's a constant battle for school administrators to keep up with technology and protect their students. While he said he hasn't seen a case quite like this during his tenure, there have been a number of cyberbullying instances in the past and even the use of school emails poses risks.
Finding the balance between taking advantage of technology and being taken advantage of by technology, can be difficult to reach, Sauer added.
"It opens all sorts of issues. It's concerning as you take these steps because the technology moves so fast and it grows leaps and bounds," he said. "As an educator you want to take careful steps amd sometimes, when you're trying to keep up with technology, you can get run over by it."
Technology may not be the only thing growing by leaps and bounds. The Garfield parent interviewed said there's a continual escalation by content creators-whether it's syndicated cable shows or amateurish YouTube projects-to peddle increasingly shocking and edgy material for their viewers.
"It seems like people are pushing the envelope as far as they possibly can, for ratings or views," the parent said. "And everybody is pushing the envelope to see what they can get away with and see how many people they can get to watch them do stupid, crazy stuff-regardless of who they hurt and who they have an impression on."
Kennedy and Sauer said counteracting the influence of this kind of content is twofold-having earnest discussions regarding the inappropriateness of these acts with students and parents, as well as educating parents to take precautions when their children are absent from the classroom.
The Garfield parent, whose children use tablets for recreation, said he does not allow them to use devices with locked profiles or passwords, a rule that allows him to peruse their search and viewing histories to monitor the content they see.
Going forward, he said, he will be more vigilant and, if he does not feel they're properly protected in these environments, limit the amount of time his children are spending at friends' houses.
Parental tech-supervision tips
In her letter, Principal Jodi Kennedy included links to a number of tips for parents trying to supervise and monitor their children's media usage.
"Making sure that children are watching appropriate content is most important when using social media websites and can be monitored easily if headphones are not used and devices are not present when adult supervision is not available," Kennedy wrote. "Another option for limiting usage would be to use parental controls to block sites that are not appropriate."
The following are a list of tips regarding tech-supervision from www.commonsense.org.
• Some mobile devices come with basic parental controls-but the options vary a lot depending on the device. Parents can download apps to track and control online activity, including text messaging and social media. To monitor children's social media accounts, they'll need their passwords and usernames. This may be effective for younger kids, before they're of the age to undermine these restrictions.
• Utilizing a device's operating system. Microsoft's Windows, Apple's Mac OS and Google Chrome come with robust built-in parental controls. To get the most benefits, parents need to use the most updated version of the operating system, and each user has to log in under his or her profile.
• Web browsers. Browsers-for example Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple Safari-are the software they use to go on the internet. Each one offers different ways of filtering out websites they don't want their kids to visit. Browsers are free, but if they have more than one on their machine, they need to enable filters on all of them.
• There is also the option of using kids' browsers. Sometimes called "walled gardens," these are protected environments that fill up the entire screen (so kids can't click out of them). They typically offer games, pre-approved websites, email and various activities. Fortunately, kids' browsers are usually free for the basic version, but cost money for a premium upgrade.
• Parents may also consider third-party apps and software. Full-featured parental-control programs, such as NetNanny and Qustodio allow parents to block websites, impose screen-time limits, and monitor online activity (for example, which sites the kid visits) on a computer or laptop. Many of these programs also offer added security against malware and viruses and will send parents a summary of what their child does online. Unfortunately, these usually require a monthly subscription fee. Fortunately, it's effective for children of all ages and especially kids who need a lot of support in following the rules.