Be Careful on the Internet, Sheriff Warns

Cyberbullying, sexting can lead to embarrassment, prosecution, suicide

By Courtney Copenhagen and Courtney O'Callaghan
|  Wednesday, Jan 12, 2011  |  Updated 11:30 PM CDT
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Sheriff Tom Dart has a simple message for young people using the Internet and social media:  be careful.

Standing before a room of Taft Middle School students on Wednesday, Dart admitted that cell phones and the Internet weren’t even around when he was their age.  But nowadays, the two have lead to countless arrests by his officers.

"I try to make sure these kids are made aware that the Internet, while a wonderful thing, has all sorts of dangers that are very real, and that the only way to avoid it is to have them educated about it," Dart said after his presentation.

The sheriff warned the students against giving out basic information on Facebook and Twitter pages that can be misused by Internet predators.

"Children are talking via the Internet through chat rooms to someone they believe is another child.  It turns out it's an adult in their 30s or 40s," he said.

With new Illinois laws on sexting, he advised the students not to send naked pictures of themselves because they don’t know where they could end up.

"Not only can that end up anywhere and everywhere, and be horrible embarrassing, but it could end up in a criminal prosecution," he warned.

But most importantly, he spoke on how cyberbullying can go too far.

"I've seen some of the things that have been put out there and it's hurtful thinking of it as an adult, you can only imagine a very sensitive 11-year-old, 9-year-old, 13-year-old, whose got all sorts of their own insecurities and now you have the world coming down on you in all sorts of negative type of comments.  It's horrible stuff."

This time last year, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince received national attention when she committed suicide reportedly due to cyber-bullying at a Massachusetts high school. The case lead to the criminal prosecution of six teens, and is reminder of the dire affects that wrongful online actions can result in.

"I think it's horrible how some people can really ruin someone’s life like that, up to the point they want to commit suicide," said 13-year-old Weston Jones, a seventh grader at the school.

While no cases of reported cyberbullying at Taft have reached the level of the national cases, counselors hope the message is clear.

"The thinking is right in the here and the now," said school counselor Christine Eischen.  [They need to learn that] some of the actions they do can affect others and themselves in the future if they don't kind of take a second step to think about what they're doing."

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