Olentangy Valley News

Officers: No student immune to social media's dangers

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Smartphones, social media and cyberspace can be great educational and recreational tools for students.

They also can act as gateways to disruptive and potentially illegal activities such as sexting and cyberbullying.

School resource officers in the Olentangy Local School District said it's the parents' job to keep their children on the right path with technology.

Delaware County Sheriff's deputy Ron Vogel held up a smartphone at the start of a community workshop Feb. 19 at Hyatts Middle School in Powell.

"This phone -- 50 percent of it's good, and 50 percent of it's bad," he said.

Vogel said parents need to keep up to date with current technology in order to keep a closer eye on their kids' activities. He said parents who don't know what Twitter, Snapchat and Kik are won't understand the possible dangers associated with each social-media platform or application.

Snapchat, for instance, allows users to send and receive photos or short videos, which disappear after a few seconds, on their smartphones.

Deputy Doug Simila said this emboldens some students to send images with nudity or drug use because they think the image will be deleted in a matter of seconds. Parents and students need to know, he said, that the recipient of the image can take a screenshot and save the image on their device.

Simila said students may think they're sending a racy picture to their significant other, but such images often travel far and fast among students.

"I can almost guarantee you that photo is not going to stay with the one person you sent it to," he said.

He said juveniles who forward nude pictures of other juveniles can be charged with pandering obscenity, a fourth-degree felony.

Vogel said parents need to have open conversations with their children about sexting, instead of brushing the issue aside and assuming their children would never be involved in the activity.

"Talk to your kids about this stuff, and let them feel comfortable coming to you," he said.

Vogel said prosecutors often use discretion in such cases. If a boyfriend sends a nude picture to a girlfriend, or vice versa, and it ends there, the case may end with a chat among law enforcement officers, the students and their families.

He said if the image is forwarded to third parties, however, criminal charges are likely.

Vogel said the officials in the district are seeing sexting cases involving students starting in sixth grade.

"It's mostly the guys pressuring the girls into doing this," he said.

Vogel added it's not just troublemakers who are sexting. He said otherwise model students can break down under relentless peer pressure from their significant other to send a sexual image.

Simila said it's the parents' obligation to know what kids are up to on their phones, computers and social-media accounts.

He said parents should check all the contacts in their children's phone, and even call numbers to speak with the contacts if they suspect something is wrong.

Simila also warned parents to keep computers in a common room. Computers with Internet access in the bedroom should be off-limits, he said.

"I think that's a recipe for disaster," he said.

Vogel said parents also need to recognize signs of cyberbullying. He said the Olentangy district, like many, has seen its share of problems with threats and taunts on social-media sites.

"A lot of the problems I've been seeing on this side -- my bullies have been the girls," he said. "Big-time."

Anonymous gossip accounts on Twitter that spread vicious rumors, especially about freshmen girls at the district's high schools, became a major problem last year, he said.

"It was wreaking havoc in our high schools," he said. "It was wreaking havoc in our community."

The bullying got so severe that the sheriff's office and school district reached out to Twitter to have the accounts removed.

Vogel said students involved in cyberbullying should know that anonymous accounts rarely stay anonymous when law enforcement becomes involved. Police agencies can subpoena information about the account that will lead to the creator.

Cyberbullying can lead to telecommunications harassment or disorderly conduct charges.

Students also could face repercussions at school.

Hyatts Middle School Principal Kathy McFarland said students can face suspensions from extracurriculars and sports if they are involved in cyberbullying, even if it occurs off school grounds.

"If it disrupts the learning environment, we as a school step in," she said.

Vogel said cyberbullying should not be brushed off by parents. Students have injured themselves and even committed suicide because of online harassment in cases across the country.

Simila said parents can best protect their children from online dangers by keeping a close eye on them. He said parents should have access to every device and social-media account their children use.

"Whatever you let them have, you have to be right there with them," he said.

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