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Alert: There's More to Internet Concerns than Predators

Students with computer

CHICAGO, IL (August 18, 2008) – Discussions regarding the dangers of teens posting information on the internet tend to focus on the risk of attracting predators, but what people place online also can threaten their educational and employment futures as well as harm their reputations.

Increasingly employers and schools are scanning the social networking sites of potential employees and students. Additionally, pictures and comments placed online or spread via cell phones one day can come back to haunt someone years later.

Still, teens frequently are unaware or unconcerned about the risks, and there is little parents can do to prevent their kids from engaging in inappropriate or potentially harmful behavior, say those who work with them.

According to a Pew Internet and American Life study released in 2007, more than half the nation’s children aged 12-18 and 70 percent of girls aged 15-18 use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. Most say it simply is a way of keeping up with friends.

What constitutes a friend is changing, however. Users of social networking sites may collect them by the hundreds and even thousands. Contests are held to see who can gather the most friends. Anyone wanting to be someone’s friend on Facebook makes a request that must be approved.

Posted words and photos are immediately spread among all the friends. From there they can be instantly transmitted elsewhere and saved – even among those who might not have initial access to the information.

“Technology give you a false sense of autonomy and aloneness, but what people do is massively public,” says Jim Dekker, co-director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies (CYMS) at North Park University.

“They’re not thinking long-term consequences,” says Ginny Olson, the other co-director of CYMS. “They’re thinking it’s funny, and they want to get attention. There is a naiveté. They don’t think it will get passed on.”

The pages have given employers and schools additional information by which to judge applicants. North Park does not look at applicants’ social networking pages and doesn’t have any plans to do so, says Mark Olson, dean of enrollment and director of church relations.

“It’s a very hot subject in admission circles,” Olson adds. He attended a conference Thursday in which a seminar on the issue drew a standing-room-only crowd.

Pilgrim Pines Conference Center in the East Coast Conference now requires applicants to provide access to their Facebook and MySpace accounts. Campers used to ask for counselors’ mailing addresses and that later switched to email addresses, says Johnny Agurkis, pastor at Covenant Congregational Church in North Easton, Massachusetts. “Now they want the counselor’s Facebook page.”

People who work with teens say they are amazed that many young people have little clue as to how their posts may be viewed or the dangers they present. “There’s no sense that they’re doing anything wrong,” says Dekker, adding, “A moral callousness is developing.”

Olson says she doesn’t want to entirely blame the media, but adds, “I think we’re seeing the ripple effect of ‘Girls Gone Wild’ and ‘MTV’s Spring Break.’”

Increasingly, teen boys and girls are sending provocative and even nude photos of themselves by cell phone, says Olson, author of “Teenage Girls: Exploring Issues Adolescent Girls Face and Strategies to Help Them.”

Tom Wollman, of the State’s Attorney office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, recently handled a case in which girls sent nude photos of themselves to boys. The boys then spread them to others. “Ultimately, these pictures spread like wildfire,” Wollman told a local TV station.

Teens also post inappropriate pictures or messages for the shock value, Olson says. She likens it to the streaking craze of the 1970s, or to the wearing of clothes parents might find objectionable. Now, however, the consequences can follow the young people for years.

More often than parents would like to admit, teens that are active in church are knowingly or unknowingly sharing inappropriate material. “The mindset is still, “It’s not my child,’” Dekker says.

A youth pastor in one ECC church accidentally discovered that two of the teen leaders in his group had been exchanging inappropriate text messages that also revealed other activity. Discussions with the parents and teens were held to discuss the issue.

Few options exist for parents to control what teens post online or spread with text messages. “Technology is becoming so pervasive and so broad,” Dekker explains. “You can go the library and use the computer.” When it comes to limiting access to technology, he adds, “Kids are essentially in charge.”

According to a study released Tuesday by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

-Ninety percent of tweens (ages nine to 12) report having used the internet by the time they were nine years old. -Thirty-four percent of 11- and 12-year-olds have a profile on a social networking site, and only 69 percent of them tell parents “a lot” or “everything” they do online.

(For the full study, see RESEARCH.)

Cell phones, once given to children for safety, are ubiquitous, and text messaging is becoming the preferred form of communication among teens, Olson says. A national study by Chicago-based C&R Research found that nearly half of the children between the ages of 10 and 13 in the U.S. and 83 percent of teens have their own cell phone. According to the study, the average teen generates between 50 and 70 text messages a day, or as many as 18,000 a year.

Even if parents could take away technology, “You still haven’t dealt with what’s important,” Dekker adds. Relationships of mutual respect built over time are the parents’ most effective means of protecting teens, he explains. That includes talking.

“Parents think that if they sit down once with kids and have discussion, that is enough,” he says. “They need to have repeated conversations.”

Parents should try to understand the teen mindset by asking what the kids are thinking. The teens may have an entirely different view of what is appropriate. Keeping the right tone also is important, “If you make it a big deal, the distance remains,” Dekker says.

Still there are actions that parents can take. Most importantly they need to accept their responsibility as parents, Dekker says. Exercising parental authority includes remembering that they are the ones paying for the technology.

Dekker encourages parents to check the text messages on their teens phones at random times. Although teens may start to immediately erase messages, the phone bill will alert parents to whether this is happening. Parents also can decide not to allow text messaging.

Parents also must take time to familiarize themselves with the latest technology and the ways in which teens are passing information, experts say. They also should consider requesting to be “friends” with their teens on the social networking sites.

Keeping up with what is happening in teenagers’ lives has never been easy, but the long-term stakes may never have been higher.

Covenant News Service, Copyright 2008, Evangelical Covenant Church