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Parents need to warn children about potential dangers of social media

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WILLMAR -- It's OK for parents to set limits on how much their teenagers use technology.

For instance, phones can be turned off at 10 p.m. or kept out of bedrooms. Parents can set rules about their children's associates on social media.

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It's not that technology is bad, but kids face many potential dangers with unfettered access to texting, emails and Facebook, said Kandiyohi County Attorney Jenna Fischer Thursday.

Fischer spoke at the Community Conference on the Brain Thursday to offer information about sexting and cyberbullying and to offer some tips on what parents can do.

"I don't know what I did without this thing," she said, holding up her iPhone. "Technology isn't bad; technology is very good." However, it does present challenges for parents and their children.

The annual conference provides information for professionals, parents and students about brain development and behavior. The 11th annual gathering was held Thursday afternoon and evening at Willmar Senior High School.

Smartphones allow young people to communicate with other people quickly and efficiently, Fischer said. "The problem for parents is we don't know what they're saying."

Studies indicate that one-third or more of teens are involved in some type of sexual behavior via social media, and many more are the recipients of sexually explicit text messages, she said.

The most vulnerable are young teens unprepared for the world their new phones open up for them.

"Adults need to warn kids," Fischer said. "Don't let the technology scare you."

The "creepy pervert" predators are certainly out there, and have been caught in Kandiyohi County, she said.

They can pretend to be anyone online and talk kids into providing nude photos. "Once it's shared, it's all over, and we can never take it back," Fischer said.

But predators aren't the only danger to kids online and in social media.

A girl may think it's OK to send a boyfriend a photo of her breasts, Fischer said. A few months later, he may not care about her anymore, and he could share it with friends. Within hours, hundreds or thousands of people could see it.

"If someone is asking for photos of genitalia, it's most likely a guy," she said.

When she speaks to teens, Fischer tells them that it's rare for a woman to ask for photos of genitalia, because they usually find words more attractive than images. Kids are often surprised when she tells them that.

A major source of distribution for nude photos can be a fake Facebook account where teens will post nude photos that were initially meant to be seen by one person, she said. In her two years in office, she said, she has charged a handful of teenagers with child pornography charges.

"It's a pretty serious felony to be in possession or to distribute child pornography," she said. If a person in a sexually explicit photo is younger than 18, it's child pornography, and even another teenager can be charged with distributing it.

Fake Facebook accounts can also be used to carry out cyberbullying, Fischer said. Harassing a person online or sending multiple unwanted text messages is handled under anti-stalking laws.

Cyberbullying happens everywhere, Fischer said, and parents shouldn't think it can't happen in a rural area. It can include spreading false rumors, sending threatening messages and name-calling. There's often a lack of empathy and a lack of respect shown to others.

"I routinely see seventh- and eighth-graders calling each other sluts and whores," she said.

Fischer cited several situations around the country and in Minnesota where teens have committed suicide after cyberbullying; sometimes it's connected to distribution of nude photos.

Another drawback to misbehavior online is that college admissions offices often check Facebook and other social media. Law enforcement and prospective employers also check.

Other dangers of social media include internet addiction and sleep deprivation.

Teenagers tend to friend everyone on social media, including people they don't know.

Parents need to make it clear that it's not safe to do that, Fischer said, and they need to try to keep communicating about safety.

It's good advice for young people to friend only people they actually know and to block friends who are engaging in bullying or other bad behavior.

Fischer said she is working with area school districts to develop workable policies to combat cyberbullying.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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