Polk teen's death spurs social media conversation - WJBF-TV ABC 6 Augusta-Aiken

Polk teen's death spurs social media conversation

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Polk County authorities are investigating the death of a 12-year-old girl. Her mother believes her daughter's death can be linked to cyber bullying.

"If I had known about it, I would have taken her phone and all of her electronics away," said Tricia Norman, outside her Lakeland home. She believes her daughter, Becca, took her own life by jumping from the tower at an abandoned cement plant.

Authorities found numerous negative messages on her phone, including "nobody cares about you" and "you seriously deserve to die."

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd says the recent case of cyber bullying should be a lesson to all parents: know what your children are doing on the phone and online.

"If you're not searching your children's devices, if you're not taking them from your 12, 13, 14, 15, 16-year olds, and demanding to look and see what's happening, you're not being a responsible parent," Sheriff Judd said.

Norman agrees.

But that can be a difficult thing for parents to do. Social media experts say teens are taking their online socializing away from sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Instead, they're using sites many parents don't monitor.

"They moved to their own sites and they're using social media platforms such as Instagram, ask.fm, and even a messaging site called Kik," said University of South Florida social media professor, Kelli Burns.

Kik is an app many kids put on their phones that allows them to private message each other. Ask.fm is a site where teens can post questions and get answers from most anywhere in the world.

"A good thing to do is look at their phone, and go through all the apps they have on their phone," Burns said. "There may be things on there that you think aren't a social networking site that actually are."

Burns said many teens are using sites that allow them to post pictures and video, which can also open them up to more criticism and bullying. That's why parents need to talk to their teens about what they're doing online.

"To some extent you want to give your child a little bit of freedom to talk to their friends online," she said. "You don't want to monitor every single thing that they're saying, but you need to talk to them about online safety."

NBC News compiled a list of the 11 sites teens are using most. Those sites are listed below, along with a description of what the apps do.

Facebook

Your teenager is probably a Facebook user, but don't assume kids use this site the same way you do. Facebook is huge. It's a default. Not having a Facebook profile would be like not being listed in the phone book back in the olden days. Teens feel the need to maintain a profile there, even if they are not very active on the site. For best results on Facebook, do not engage your teen. Just lurk and collect information.

Instagram

This photo editing and sharing app is crazy popular with teenage girls who love their selfies. Instagram allows users to edit and post photos taken on their phone, and the images are publicly visible by default. Privacy settings are critical here because there are whole communities dedicated to displaying images of minors in sexually suggestive poses that are not technically pornography. Not to be paranoid, but innocent vacation pictures could end up in a forum for a pedophiles.

Twitter

Twitter offers quick connection with anyone in the world. Users post updates in 140 characters or less. They can follow and be followed, as well as block other users from seeing what they post, but parents can also see what kids are posting without connecting, so long as they are not blocked. Because images can be posted, all the same dangers of Instagram apply. Remember, too, that if your teen doesn't want you to see their posts, they can simply start a new account and not tell you about it.

Pinterest

Pinterest organizes users around interests. Users create boards, which are like digital bulletin boards where favorite content is "pinned." It's incredibly popular because of its ease of use, ability to "save" content to look at later, and highly visual layout. Danger? Once a gathering place for home cooks and interior design aficionados, Pinterest has attracted its share of porn. However, your teen probably won't find it unless he or she is looking.

Vine

On Vine, users create and post 6-second videos, which are often also shared on Twitter and Facebook. Expect plenty of inappropriate content here including enough sex and drugs to earn the app a 17+ rating in the iTunes Store. With an unverified confirmation of the age requirement, users are ready to post video. Blocking who watches the video requires constant vigilance to make sure videos are not shown to strangers.

Reddit

Reddit users submit links or text, which are voted up or down by other users. Content is ranked to determine the post's position on the front page. All the content is organized into categories known as "sub-reddits." This site is more popular with boys, who are using the app less as a social network than as a source of news and as a search engine. The forum-like interaction means your teen can "talk" to anyone.

Tumblr

Tumblr enables blogging for those afflicted with a short attention span. Of course, teens love it. Photo, audio, and video posts are often re-shared from other sites with very little text. Tumblr's big attraction is the ability to create collections of media that quickly and powerfully express the poster's personality. Beware of the anorexia communities popular on Tumblr glorifying images of frighteningly thin young girls and women.

Kik

Kik is a smartphone messenger system where users send videos and images instead of text. Think emojis on steroids. Teens love meme and Kik allows them to search for and share images, memes and YouTube videos. Parents might be surprised to see some of the jokes their teens are sharing, but there is no unique danger here.

Snapchat

Snapchat allows users to send messages, primarily photos and videos that are destroyed seconds after they have been received. This service is marketed to teens with "capture the moment" messaging, and plays on its contrast to Facebook, which archives every post and pic for years. Snapchat's fleeting image feature offers users the illusion of anonymity, but screenshots can be taken. The biggest risk here is sending inappropriate content thinking it can't be used against them. If your kids have the judgment of politicians, they could get into trouble.

Pheed

Pheed allows users to share all forms of digital content in 420 characters or less. Teens are the primary users of Pheed, which is one of the top apps in the iPhone store. Each user gets their own channel where they can post their content publicly or privately. In addition to the social media aspects like Facebook, Pheed is a full service broadcast medium. Users can share audio tracks and live broadcasts. Your teenager could conceivably live-stream every waking moment on Pheed. I think we've all seen that episode of "Law & Order." Users can also charge for access to the channel. A profit motive and under-developed judgment? What could possibly go wrong?

Wanelo

Wanelo -- which stands for "Want, need, love" -- is Instagram-meets-shopping and the dream app of many teenage girls. Users post images and links to products, which are then bought, saved, tagged and shared by other users. When enough users tag a product, a store page is created. Users can follow stores and get updates when new products from those stores are posted. Wanelo is a wonderful tool to find out exactly what your 14-year-old daughter wants for her birthday. Serious threats to your bank balance here.

4Chan

4chan is a simple forum platform. Anyone can post images on bulletin boards, and anyone can comment. Similar to Reddit, the boards are dedicated to a variety of topics, but here users do not need to create an account to participate in the community. Anonymity can create extremely hostile environments online, so if your teenager is using 4chan, you'll want to have conversations about how to deal with virtual aggression.

It can seem overwhelming to keep up with teens' online lives, but take some comfort in knowing that yours is probably not active in all of these networks. As sophisticated as the technology is, and as fast as it changes, communicating with teenagers still comes down to real life conversations. And maybe a little snooping around on their phones.

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