Rosenblum: Internet safety message comes to teens by teens

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 21, 2013 - 11:11 PM

A new push for Internet safety is based on a wise theory.

Teens have had enough of parental admonishments about the dangers of social media, but they might listen to their peers, especially those who have screwed up big time.

It’s hard to not love a website with a section called “Mistakes we made,” featuring true tales of young people admitting to dumb or dangerous stuff. That’s just the beginning of what makes protectmyrep.org worth a look.

The engaging and teen-centric website was conceived and created by nine students involved with ThreeSixty, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas. Supported by an $8,500 grant and three tech-savvy alumnae, the teens built an interactive site they hope will encourage less eye-rolling and more “I get its.”

There’s a social media quiz — true or false: “It’s OK to post videos of school fights on YouTube” — and short video interviews with people offering cautionary tales, including Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman and an Army recruiter.

Mostly, though, the site encourages teens to have fun with social media, but to be smart about it.

A website launch and panel discussion is set for 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Minneapolis Central Library. Teens are invited to bring their thoughts and personal Web pages for feedback.

“I really hope people use it,” said Simone Cazares, a junior at the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and in her second year with ThreeSixty. “We put a lot of effort into it. Maybe they’ll learn something that helps them find a job.”

Or not lose one. Twenty-six-year-old “John” shares his big mistake of being tagged in Facebook photos where he was passed out drunk. Two potential business partners declined to work with him after that. If that didn’t burn enough, somebody showed the photos to his mother.

Another former teen shared taking her anger to the Web after an upsetting basketball loss. Her coach suspended her for the final three games of the season.

“No one talked about Internet safety when I was in high school,” said Emma Carew Grovum, a ThreeSixty alum who helped with the site’s content and design. “Looking back, it’s kind of troubling what we were willing to post.”

She adds with a laugh that it’s also troubling to realize how “outdated” her knowledge is at the ripe old age of 26. “I put information about Google+ on there and the kids said, ‘No one’s ever heard of that. Put Tumblr on instead.’ ”

For the website to have a chance at success, it had to sound and think like teens sound and think, said Carew Grovum, a data journalist with the Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., and a former Star Tribune reporter.

“Teens are so sick of hearing this lecture [about being safe], so we looked for things they haven’t heard before.”

The development team, which includes alums Sisi Wei, with Pro Publica in New York, and Minneapolis digital artist Maggie Clemensen, downplayed bullying, since many other sites deal well with that issue.

“But they may not have heard about an Army recruiter looking at your profile if you’re interested in ROTC,” Carew Grovum said. “I hope they come away with this general feeling that the Internet is permanent. You really can’t take anything back.”

That includes Snapchat, a hugely popular app that allows users to take photos that disappear within seconds, unless someone captures the shot and keeps it. You’ll find that alarming detail under the site’s Social Media 101.

And what about posting school fights on YouTube? The answer might surprise adults: “Morally, you’re right. Posting fight videos online easily fuels the anger and violence. But if you do this away from school, you’re not breaking a law.”

Three-Sixty Executive Director Lynda McDonnell believes that educating, instead of lecturing, is the best way to encourage teens to choose safer behaviors.

“They have rights to privacy and free speech,” she said, “but they need to think about consequences.”

Since the project began, many of the teen creators have made their own adjustments. One removed her phone number from her Facebook profile; another deleted more than 500 images. Another googled herself and deleted “embarrassing” videos.

It’s not just teens who could benefit from a little adjusting. McDonnell hears from students whose parents or aunties “will comment on everything. It’s silly and inappropriate and that’s embarrassing to them.”

Overreacting by adults isn’t helpful, either. “It’s really important to be aware of what they’re doing, but to not be so quick to judge or panic,” McDonnell said. “Try to learn from them about how they’re using social media. Guide them to places, including this website. Be eager to learn.

“We’re always behind our kids when it comes to technology.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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