With a couple of taps of their fingers, boys and girls can connect to strangers in an instant.
Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are just a few of the social media applications available via any cellphone, tablet or computer that connect youth with the world.
The Indiana Youth Institute led a forum, “When Social Media Goes Bad,” Nov. 17 at Brown County High School, and the message was clear: Think before you post.
Captain Brent Worth with the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office addressed a group of parents, school faculty and members of other organizations, like Turning Point Domestic Violence Services and the Brown County Weekend Backpack program.
“Our teens are using this stuff all the time,” said Worth, who has trained in internet safety and investigated internet crimes. “It’s become a common theme in our life.”
Teens send an average of more than 100 text messages a day, Worth said.
Young people regularly post photos of themselves on social media, talk about their schools and where they live, and share their email addresses and cellphone numbers.
“That’s why we’re seeing kids become victims of crimes more often,” he said.
One way teens can become victims online is by trusting a stranger.
One in 5 children younger than 18 is approached by online predators.
“There are people out there who are looking to prey on children,” he said.
He showed the group an interview with an online predator who had been convicted of possessing child pornography and sex crimes. In the video, the man said he would speak to 25 children in a three-hour period online.
“My goal was to find out what type of person they were interested in talking to. If it was a 14-year-old boy online looking to talk to a 14-year-old girl, I would be that person,” he said. “The ones I interacted with saw me as a friend.”
Disconnection within a family may lead a child to find a trusted friend online, Worth said.
His presentation showed the smiling face of 13-year-old Kacie Rene Woody. Woody’s father was a police officer. Her mother was killed in a car accident. Woody began talking to a 47-year-old man online whom she believed was 18. He told her his mother had also died in a car accident.
“There was comfort. He had her location and terrible things happened,” Worth said.
That man drove from California to Woody’s home in Arkansas. She left with him. Her body was discovered outside of a storage unit 24 hours later.
Kids who bury their heads into their phones and don’t pay attention to their surroundings are more susceptible to attacks or abductions, Worth said.
“Keep your head up. Watch what is going on. If someone grabs you, fight, yell, scream. It’s going to look unusual if they’re trying to pull you into a car kicking and screaming,” Worth said.
Online relationships should also be cautiously monitored because kids may not know who they are really talking to.
Worth said there are “warning signs”: isolation, like a person keeping a teen from their friends or family; making the teen keep secrets; sending inappropriate materials or talking about explicit subjects; and threats.
Teens should also be cautious if someone says, “You seem sad. Tell me what’s bothering you,” because that person is looking for a way to build a relationship, Worth said.
Other red flags in online conversations include asking where the computer or phone is in the home, wanting to go to a “private” chat from a public chat room, or “I know someone who can get you a modeling job,” which is something Worth said he had seen in his investigations.
“Sexting,” or sharing inappropriate photos via messaging, is also an issue teens must worry about, Worth said.
The top three reasons girls send “sexts” are to be fun/flirty, to give a “sexy present” and to feel sexy and confident, Worth said. Boys send “sexts” too, but also said they do so in response to one, he said.
“There’s a thin line between him and the whole school,” a video shown during the forum said.
“Once it spreads around, once it’s out there, it’s hard to get back,” Worth said.
Sexting may also lead to felony charges for teens who possess those images, especially if the teen is over 18 and has images of a minor, Worth said.
Inappropriate photos can also lead to even a bigger problem: sextortion.
“Sextortion” is blackmailing a person with images they have sent in order to get them to engage in sexual acts. Those acts could then also be recorded and used as future blackmail, Worth said.
Cyberbullying is another issue some teens may face. It’s when a person is tormented, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another person using the internet or other digital communication, Worth said.
Taking screenshots — a photo of the internet post — allows bullying to live on forever, Worth said.
“Even if it’s taken down right away, once it’s out there, it can be screenshot and reused. It’s really hard to capture,” he said.
This form of bullying could lead to more devastating incidents. Worth said Morgan County investigates at least 10 incidents each year related to fear about someone bringing a gun to school because of an online relationship.
He also cited the “Brian Kil” Facebook profile that terrorized the Plainfield area earlier this year with threats of violence in schools and local businesses.
Fake text messaging apps and apps that allow for computer IP addresses to be disguised are barriers to tracking down cyberbullies, Worth said.
Parents and teens can take steps toward greater safety on the internet.
He suggested shutting off geolocations on cellphones and turning off website tracking to keep private information private. That can be done by going into the privacy settings under advanced settings, he said.
Most importantly, families need to be involved.
Worth said parents should know their child’s Apple username and password if they have an iPhone; the Playstore username and password if it’s an Android; and the Microsoft username and password for Microsoft phones.
Worth also cautioned parents to be on the lookout for “ghost apps” that appear as something harmless, like a calculator, but when a password is entered, other images may appear.
“If they have more than one calculator on their phone, you start questioning, ‘Why?’” he said.
Parents should also check the privacy settings on their device and their child’s, he said.
Apps like TeenSafe can give parents a look at what is coming into their child’s phone by allowing them to view text messages, phone calls and browser histories.
“I’m not pushing parents or people to spy on their kids. But instincts speak a lot. If you suspect something is going on, then start to dig,” Worth said.
“If you’re connected with your kid, you know when to start looking.”