Youth Talking to You
The next session, on peer pressure, happens April 16 at 7 p.m. in the Morinville Room of Servus Credit Union Place. Visit bamforyouth.ca for details.
Blackmail should not be a part of a young girl's life online.
But it's what happened to Sydney Parkinson just a month-and-a-half ago. Someone set up a fake Instagram account under her name, posted what was supposedly a nude picture of her (it wasn't) and sent her a message.
"Sydney, if you want this photo taken off and not shared with everyone you must make a new account and take two more naked photos and tag this account in them," it read. "If you do not do this by 8:00, or if you decide to block me, I will share this with everyone."
This is not an extreme case when it comes to teens online today, says Parkinson, a student at Lorne Akins Junior High.
"Nothing is really shocking to us anymore," she says.
Parkinson, along with fellow students Cassidy Morris, Carly Lohmeier and Ryley Fetter were at the St. Albert Public Library Thursday for Youth Talking to You – a parental information session about how teens experience social media.
It's the first of a series of talks they've planned through Building Assets and Memories (BAM) to help parents understand what it means to be a teen in St. Albert.
Technology moves so fast that it's tough for parents to keep up with it, says BAM co-ordinator Ben Huising.
"Parents understand Facebook, but teens don't even use Facebook anymore," he says.
Many don't want their parents watching over their social media lives.
That's an issue because safety isn't top-of-mind for most teens when it comes to social media, says Morris, who attends St. Albert Catholic High.
"Once your personal information is out there, that's where it stays. You can't get it back."
Risks of social media
Social media can have a great impact on a teen's self-esteem, the students say. Some may take risks like posting nude selfies to try and gain more followers, for example, or feel crushed when a friend un-follows them.
Social media isn't all bad, says Fetter, who also attends St. Albert Catholic High. It's a good way to spread news about events or fundraisers, and helps you store memorable moments.
"It really connects people to a degree," he says.
But many sites are ripe for exploitation. Twitter is a great way to follow celebrities and friends, for example, but is often used to post disturbing pictures or anonymous insults, he says. The video-chat site Omegle can lead to both laughs and online sexual exploitation.
"You can find tons of little girls on these sites," many of whom are at risk of become victims for predators, Parkinson says.
Others may see disturbing images before they're ready and develop unhealthy attitudes or relationships.
"I was not ready to see the things that I saw," says Parkinson, who first used Omegle in Grade 7.
The photo-sharing website Instagram is likely the most popular social media site amongst local teens today, Parkinson says. It's also one of the more dangerous, due to the amount of disturbing pictures on it, she adds.
Her troubles with the site started when a student started sharing what he claimed was a nude photo of her (it wasn't).
"It is a huge issue in St. Albert," she says – probably half of her school has either taken or shared such a photo at some point.
The photo soon spread to other schools, triggering rude comments towards her in the halls.
"It created a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety," she says.
She eventually confronted the student who first posted it, which lead to the student's suspension. When the blackmail message arrived, she went to the police, leading to a stressful interrogation, an ongoing investigation and a long period of depression.
"I dreaded the few hours before 8 o'clock," she says, referring to the message.
How parents can help
"This entire thing comes back to boundaries," Parkinson says.
Kids need to learn about sex and other controversial topics eventually, but it should be through someone they trust, not accidentally online.
Most teens will get mad if their parents try to cut off all social media, Morris says.
"It's something that defines most teenagers."
Instead, she recommends setting boundaries for online life with children when they're young.
It'll probably be super-awkward, but it has to be done, Lohmeier says.
"It's like the whole sex-talk thing."
Teens need to know that many of these actions (e.g. sharing nude photos) are illegal and carry lasting consequences.
Parkinson recommends that teens never use their full real name online, as using it makes you an easy target for stalkers. Use the privacy settings, and limit who's following you.
And never post a nude picture of yourself online, she says.
"A guy is never worth it."