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Friday, October 27, 2017

Social Media is a Digital Tattoo, Experts Tell Highlands Students

"Everyone in this room has a digital tattoo. You didn’t ask for it, you don’t know where it is, you don’t know who can see it…and that digital tattoo will follow you for the rest of your life," social media expert Stephen J. Smith told a crowd of ninth and tenth graders at Highlands High School this week.

Smith repeated his message at sessions for faculty and for juniors and seniors as part of a presentation by local experts aimed at making students aware of the deep and lasting impact that can occur from the misuse of powerful social sharing tools.

Campbell County Attorney Steven Franzen and District Court Judge Cameron Blau joined Smith to make students, faculty and the community aware of the consequences of inappropriate use of social media.

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Highlands uses many of the social media apps and tools students use outside of the classroom, and staff tries to model what responsible use looks like, said, Assistant Principal Lee Gatens.

"But we are also aware that students don’t necessarily use these like they should.

"We have great kids here, truly amazing…but even great kids can make bad choices," Gatens explained. She said school officials wanted to make sure students understood the consequences of poor choices and to promote responsible and accountable communication alternatives.

Stephen J. Smith speaking. FTM file.

The personal and social impact

Former educator Smith is the founder of A Wired Family, a website devoted to exploring the impact of social media on students and their families.

He said many parents do not fully understand the power of social media in the hands of teens. In a survey of 10,000 area teens, he discovered that half of their parents had given them unfettered access to technology. He likened this to handing the car keys to a child who has not had any driver’s education.

Technology holds great power, but that power can be hazardous, even deadly, if not used properly. The connection between the rise of access to smart phone technology and certain social sharing sites and the rise in teen depression and suicides is alarming.

"We have the saddest teen population in American history," he said. At Children's Hospital in Cincinnati, the number of children seeking help there for mental health issues has increased by 70 percent since 2011. Studies show the rate of depression today among 12-year old girls is almost 37 percent and for boys it's 12 percent.

Smith spoke to students about the connection between teen depression and social media, emphasizing the impact that one nasty comment or tweet could have on their peers. And, in addition to hurting others, irresponsible posts can hurt one's own credibility and even future college or job prospects.

Each post or comment adds to a student's digital tattoo, a permanent record that can follow someone well into adulthood, he said. Employers and college recruiters are looking at students' social media today, and he expects social media vetting will increase in the future.

Division one colleges, he told students, are not only attending games to assess athletic performance but are also keeping an eye on potential student athletes' social media use. Top-ranked Clemson University attributes some of its recent success to choosing students who demonstrate good personal character as well as athletic ability. Students whose posts, comments and photos include sexist, racist or lewd material are stricken from their lists.

A strong warning

The other guests on the panel shared information about the criminal justice consequences of social media misuse.

Franzen explained what happens when an incident of social media abuse becomes part of a criminal complaint. He warned that once an infraction gets to his office, the consequences may be far more serious than those involved would think.

"Is it against the law for a 12-year-old to send a naked picture to a 15-year-old? The answer is yes. Absolutely. We have obscenity laws that cover it. We have pornography laws that cover it. We have distribution of obscenity laws to minors that cover it."

Students are mistaken, he says, if they believe that things posted to the web ever really go away. An image on Snapchat may only stay on screen a short time, but it’s stored on a server somewhere forever. No matter how tech savvy a teen might be, he guaranteed his team of forensic detectives would find the digital trail.

"I don’t care if you take a hammer to [your cell phone], we’ll get information off of the tower. We’ll get it off of the device you sent it to. We’ll find out what you did, what you took a picture of, what you sent one way or another," he warned.

This may seem harsh, but it is his job to protect the victim and the community, he said.

Steve Franzen, Smith and Blau huddle before the assembly at the Highlands Performing Arts Center. FTM file. 

Bringing down the hammer

Judge Blau explained the law does not distinguish between what might seem to be a case of poor judgment by teens and crimes committed by adults.

"The laws have never and probably will never catch up with technology. Technology moves at a pace so rapid, and if you’ve seen how our legislature works, you know that, unfortunately, it is at a slow pace," he said.

Because there are no laws that specifically deal with social media issues yet, the courts apply those originally designed to deal with pornography, harassment and even terrorism. Before any formal charges, the financial impact of an investigation can be formidable, he said.

"We don’t just search your cell phone….We are taking the Play Station Four…the Xbox One. Why? Because they have hard drives. We take your desktops, your laptops, every cell phone the family has, all the thumb drives, everything…setting your family back to the stone age technologically," he told the students.

When speaking to faculty, he elaborated further. "We don’t have laws that are light. We don’t have laws that are easy. We have laws that are absolute hammers. So, when they are brought down, they are brought down with a force that echoes throughout the community, throughout the school, throughout these families that you are here to assist."

Blau said he didn't want to hold a juvenile because he or she made a stupid statement, but if that statement involved a school activity or if it is any sort of threat it could be seen as terrorism in the second, a felony, and the courts will take action as such.

The judge said it is not his intent to dissuade faculty, parents or students from reaching out to law enforcement when they are concerned about something they see online. In fact, he said, local police are trained to take a common sense approach and to assist in determining the level of seriousness involved.

He said he hoped the presentation would help to raise awareness of the issue and impress upon students the importance of avoiding these consequences through responsible use of social media tools.

Parents Information Night 

On Monday, October 30, high school parents are invited to hear from the presenters in a special information night on social media and teens. The presentation will be held at 6 p.m. in the Black Box at Highlands High School. Seating will be limited, so the first 100 to sign up will be available. Additional sessions will be made available if the demand is great.

A link to sign up to see the presentation can be found here: link to sign up. 

PHOTO: Judge Cameron J. Blau speaks to Highlands students about their social media use. FTM file.

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