By Terry Dean
Irwin Loud said he and his wife used to let their teen have a Facebook account, but no longer.
The parents were well aware of the dangers associated with social networking sites prior to attending an Internet Safety workshop, April 21, at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Last Thursday's workshop was meant to educate parents about what their kids are up to, and exposed to, on the Internet.
"The kids are aware of the dangers, and the school has done a good job in helping educate families," Loud said.
Officer Troy Fields of the River Forest Police Department conducted the evening workshop, attended by only a few parents. The interactive portion had parents at computers in a school lab, logging onto Facebook through a secure account — OPRF blocks such networking sites from on-campus computers.
For some parents, it was their first time signing on to Facebook. Some even found their kid's Facebook page, astonished by the number of "friends" their kids have listed on the site. One parent noted that their child had more friends online than in the real world.
Fields said networking sites are a good way to stay connected with friends and family — he mentioned using Facebook to keep in touch with his family. But those sites can also be harmful if misused, Fields warned. Teens in particular, he noted, often feel emboldened to say and do things they normally wouldn't in public.
"Face-to-face communication scares them," he said of some users. "You can call someone names, you can post pictures, you can flirt with a girl that you might not in person because you think, 'Will she like me? Will she laugh in my face?' They never have to have that face-to-face interaction and the social anxiety that goes with it."
Threats are also a feature of social networking sites, Fields said. He recalled a recent incident the police investigated where members of an OPRF sports team made harassing comments about a player on an opposing team after a game. Fields said police are routinely monitoring Facebook to help solve crimes or to investigate a tip. Police talked to the student being harassed, but the teen opted not to file charges. Fields said Illinois' Harassment by Electronic Communication Act is used to prosecute threats made via texting, email or social networking sites.
When police went to the students who did the harassing, Fields said they were surprised that the cops were involved. The student on the opposing team had read the threats, Fields said, because the OPRF students had the teen as a friend on the site.
The officer warned against teens posting inappropriate photos and information about themselves online, which can "take on a life of its own." He told parents to monitor their students' Facebook accounts and texting. And he insisted that teens should not be allowed to have a computer in their room.
"There are no real safeguards online except for parents," he said.