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A cautionary tale from the sometimes scary world of social networking

I usually try to approach writing Without a Manual from a humorous angle. I mean, after all, I make no claims on being an authority on child rearing. Kids can be darn funny. And there have been many times as a parent that the biggest laugh is at my own expense.

Because of this, I have avoided writing about Facebook. I have mixed feelings about the social network site, and I don’t wish to enter into a debate on the merits of letting teens use Facebook. For most kids, it’s as ordinary as picking up a landline phone back in the day. As a way to keep track of friends and share pictures with family it’s great. It’s also a useful promotional tool that I have taken advantage of as a writer, and countless businesses are now tapping it as a valuable marketing tool.

Unfortunately, it also can bring out the worst in people. Kids, and even some so-called adults, often find it much easier to be cruel on Facebook, and cyber bullying can be a real problem.

And then there is the scary side of social networking. This is the side I am addressing. Something happened to us this week, and I feel obligated to use whatever means are at my disposal to make other parents aware of the potential dangers to teens, and everyone else who uses social networking sites.  

My 14-year-old daughter was victimized on Facebook this week by someone who, at best, is a horribly disturbed kid, or at worst a deranged pedophile.

With apologies to anyone not familiar with the way Facebook works, my daughter accepted a “friend” request from someone she thought was a girl she goes to school with.  As it turned out, that someone had made a fake profile in this person’s name, using her photo. When my daughter accessed this Facebook page it was loaded with very graphic pornographic pictures with her schoolmate's face Photoshopped onto them.

By accepting this person’s friend request, my daughter's Facebook page was now available to this person, including her pictures and any personal information she had on there. Within moments the person copied the happy, smiling face of my daughter and superimposed it on a very graphic nude picture of a grown woman and printed my daughter’s name, the school she attended and her cell phone number.

To make matters worse, the person began instant messaging my daughter over Facebook, and as you can imagine, the messages were pretty awful.

Needless to say, we were all horrified. With my daughter in tears, I headed to the Ledyard Police Department, where we spoke at length with Officer Rick McSwain.

Officer McSwain was very nice and did a great job at putting my daughter at ease. He was quite surprised to see the photos, because, as he explained, Facebook normally has a very strict policy against any nudity or graphic material. He put in an immediate call to Facebook to make them aware of the situation.

Unfortunately, he got a recording and had to leave a message explaining who he was and what the situation was. My daughter gave him her login and password and he explained that he would monitor her Facebook page that evening to see if the person continued to harass her.  As of this moment, all of the offensive material has been removed, and the profile has been deleted.

Officer McSwain had some useful advice that I think everyone who has a Facebook account, particularly teens, should take into serious consideration.  Make sure you remove personal information from your profile. Your school friends already know what school you go to. And never include your cell phone number.

Unfortunately, Facebook recently added a feature that uploads all of your cell phone contacts to your Facebook account, so you have to manually go into your privacy settings and remove this feature.

And speaking of privacy settings, make sure that you have them set so only the people that you accept can see your information. This won’t save you from someone claiming to be someone you know, which was the case with my daughter, but it could save you from becoming a target for random creeps out there.

Finally, parents, please, please monitor what your kids are doing on Facebook. If you have your own Facebook account, insist that they ‘friend’ you. As my kids’ Facebook friend, I use this as a chance to start conversations on things their friends are saying online. 

Yes, there are ways your kids can block you from seeing what they are doing, but hopefully, if you keep the lines of communications open, your kids will come to you if something scary like this happens. And finally, if something like this does happens to you, or your child, please contact your local police department.

Michelle Tracy is a writer who lives in Ledyard. Her columns are published regularly on the Ledyard Patch.

Karen Loftis Rankowitz August 24, 2011 at 07:11 PM
Thank you for sharing your story and for bringing attention to the scary side of social networking. Though attention has been streaming through the various media about protecting our children from this kind of abuse, I am happy to see you voicing your situation. I "recommended" this to my FB page to help spread the news that this is a serious and devastating problem for our children.


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