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Surveys show that teens use their cell phones to do more than just texting. With unlimited data plans, most teens are online an average of 42 hours a week. Staff photo by Riham Feshir

Parents cautioned about cyber bullying

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news Woodbury, 55125
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

The old saying "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" doesn't just apply to face-to-face communication anymore.

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And if teens and pre-teens want to avoid the embarrassment of having the whole world see something private, they shouldn't post it online or text it.

That was the message an expert outlined last week at an East Ridge High School event.

Jane Straub, victim intervention and recovery specialist with Human Services, Inc., spoke to a group of parents about cyber bullying and what's known as "sexting" in a Community Education sponsored event.

"If it's something that you don't want the whole world to know, don't put it on Facebook," she said.

The discussion was one of many Straub often has with students and parents about how much time teens spend "plugged in" online and things they might do without realizing the consequences. She also discussed the terms "cyber bullying," the act of bullying through electronic communications, and "sexting," the act of sending explicit photos or text messages via electronic means.

As she explained the difference between the adult's frontal lobe part of the brain and the teenage brain, she said young people are more likely to act impulsively and do things in the heat of the moment.

But that doesn't mean they have to attribute everything they do wrong to human nature, she said.

Some of their actions, she explained, are done deliberately to hurt others, repeatedly to bully victims and to make up for the power of imbalance.

Bullying

In the old days, bullying was limited to the playground, school hallways or lunchrooms. But now with the increasingly popular social networking world, it has extended to the Web.

"It really needs to be something that's talked about all the time," Straub said.

Laurie Paulsen, a Woodbury parent of a 12-year-old middle school girl, wondered when parents should step in to help kids avoid being bullied on a regular basis.

When to know whether it's an isolated incident that will go away or the start of a pattern is a struggle for parents, she said.

"It's hard. It's a constant balancing act," Paulsen said.

Some of those who attended last week's seminar said kids who seem isolated and lack "social power" can be as young as 4 years old, and it's unknown whether some of that is natural or caused by repeated bullying.

"Kids lose compassion for kids who are getting bullied," Straub said. "I think it's learned."

She added: "Sometimes when I look at a 12-year-old I think, 'Is it too late?'"

Straub suggested parents include bullying in day-to-day conversations without using the word bullying, instead, by simply asking, "What's the drama?"

Cyber bullying

Bullying and cyber bullying are not two separate things, Straub said - one just uses technology over the other.

However, the two are connected, she added. What starts out at schools may spread to Facebook, and what starts on Facebook may come back the next day at school.

Woodbury School Resource Officer Bill Mason said a lot of miscommunication happens when things are said online.

"We see a lot of 'he said, she said' comments and posts that are taken out of context," he said.

Comments on Facebook can lead to fighting at school, Mason said, and it goes back and forth.

"All of the sudden, boom, they have a fight," he added.

But it's not just fighting that school administrators worry about. Mason said harassing and threatening communication charges are possible.

A lot of times, though, teens who engage in over-the-line behavior on social networking sites are hard to track.

"Most of the time, they're tough to prosecute," Mason said. "They can always say 'my friend sent that.'"

Same thing happens with sexting, he said.

"A lot of sexual language is going on with kids," Straub said, adding that parents, teachers and administrators should always step in and say "That's not OK. Not appropriate."

Citing an MTV survey, Straub said the average teen spends more than 42 hours a week online, equivalent to a full-time job. Additionally, 39 percent of teens have sent sexually suggestive messages, and 61 percent of girls feel it's fun and flirtatious.

"Are we teaching kids to be better at hiding stuff?" Straub said.

Sexting

Mason and Straub explained that many times a girl would send a provocative picture to a boyfriend, they break up, he sends it to another kid, who then sends it to everybody in their contact list.

"Next thing you know half the school has the picture," Mason said.

He said the best way to deal with it is to act as the mediator and solve problems between kids.

"We don't want to prosecute them, label them as sex offenders, but there is that potential," he said.

What to do

Straub encouraged parents to monitor kids' cell phones without completely violating their privacy rights.

Check phones and online profiles on a regular basis and keep an open line of communication, she added.

"I don't know why as parents, we've kind of gotten afraid of being parents," Straub said, adding that saying "It's not that I don't trust you, I don't trust the two billion people on the Internet," helps.

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