SALEM - A doctor, a juvenile prosecutor and a police officer stressed Internet safety to fifth and sixth graders Thursday, telling them to think before they post anything to social media sites.
"Once it's out there, there's no turning back," Columbiana County Assistant Prosecutor Denise Weingart said.
Weingart, Dr. Michael Sevilla of Family Practice Center in Salem and Salem Police Patrolman Brad Davis shared some of the positives and negatives of using social media during a program at Southeast Elementary School in Salem.
Sexting, the sending or posting of sexually explicit or nude photographs via electronic means, was just one of the topics discussed, along with cyber bullying, the posting of threats and lies online, the possible consequences of some actions and the physical effects of texting, playing video games and constantly looking at a video screen.
Students today have access to the world at their fingertips through their computers, cell phones, social networking sites, the Internet, email and instant messaging. The presenters noted that social media and technology can be a good tool for communication, but they asked students to be aware of what they're posting, who has access to the posts and who they're talking to online.
"Parents need to talk to their kids about this issue," Sevilla said.
Parents were invited to attend the session, but only a handful were able to make it. Weingart said parents shouldn't be afraid to talk to their children about social media and should make it a habit of friending them on Facebook so they can monitor what they're doing and who they're communicating with. They should educate themselves about social media.
Davis, who handles a lot of juvenile-related complaints and visits the schools on a
regular basis, explained the idea behind the program was to make the students more aware of the many aspects of social media, both the negatives and positives.
Southeast School Principal Lisa Whitacre said it was an effort to be proactive. They've had students who have made mistakes as a result of social media. She said they want students to make informed decisions when they're using the Internet.
"I deal with a lot of social media complaints," Davis said.
Fights have ended up on video on the Internet for all to see, including the police and prosecutors looking for evidence. Threats have been documented on Facebook or in texts on cell phones. Last May, he recalled a case in Salem where three students came forward about threats made on Twitter against another student, just days after the fatal shootings at Chardon High School.
Davis said there were hundreds of students who saw the tweets, who tweeted about it, liked it and talked about it without telling anyone. Three students decided they were not going to be bystanders.
"I need you guys to come forward," he told the Southeast students, noting they should tell a parent, a teacher, a coach, a pastor, a police officer or a grownup they know and should not be afraid. "We can help, but we need to know first."
He showed a video about 13-year-old Ryan Halligan, who killed himself in 2003 after being bullied on the Internet and at school. Weingart said a lot of fights and assaults start with comments made on Facebook. They've also had people who posted comments online about things they had done, providing law enforcement with evidence of what they've done or what someone else has done.
Weingart asked for a show of hands of students who had more than five friends on Facebook, gradually increasing the number higher and higher. One students said he had more than 1,000 Facebook friends. She cautioned students about taking on friends they don't know in person and about what they post, noting that once they hit the send button, where the information or photographs end up are out of their control.
"It's just amazing how fast things can travel in cyber space," she said, showing a video demonstrating what can happen when a message is sent.
She said students need to keep the following in mind before pressing send: never assume anything sent will remain private; once something is sent, there's no changing your mind; nothing is truly anonymous and they should never give in to peer pressure.
Some consequences can include: criminal charges for crimes such as communications harassment, using a minor in sexually oriented material or pandering obscenity; having to register as a sex offender for a number of years or life; loss of friends; expulsion from school; and loss of a job or job potential. Taking photographs of a party where kids are drinking or doing drugs and then posting the pictures could have consequences.
Weingart said they need to think before they post. If they wouldn't put it in the school paper, the local newspaper, on television, on a job application or resume, or a college application, then it shouldn't be posted online. They also need to think of who may end up seeing what's posted, such as their parents, minister, teachers, boss, grandparents, or total strangers, including sex offenders.
Sevilla said social media helps to connect people all over the world, which can be a good thing. But he also said "you're never anonymous on the Internet."
He focused on the physical consequences, asking how many students had sore thumbs from playing video games or texting. Hearing problems can result from listening to music too loud through ear buds. Sight problems can result, too, from constantly looking at a screen. People need to be active and get outside. They need to learn how to communicate with other people in person, not just on a screen.
He shared with them a newspaper clipping that told about a teen in Columbus who collapsed after playing a video game for four days straight.
Sites suggested to visit for information included commonsensemedia.org and safetynet.aap.org.
Mary Ann Greier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org