COLUMBIA CITY — Many parents might not give a second thought to giving their children cellphones, tablets or computers, but community leaders are warning parents to be informed on the dangers of those devices.

Whitley County Consolidated Schools is hosting “Parent University” 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 9, at Indian Springs Middle School. The event, which will feature a panel that includes law enforcement, the prosecutor, probation department representatives and school officials, looks to shed light on a very serious problem affecting families in Whitley County on a weekly basis.

A recently launched website allows users to namelessly post photos publicly — photos that were intended to be private.

Local police and the prosecutor are investigating the criminality of the website, but for now, the photos are public.

Many of those photos were self-taken and apparently sent via text messaging, or smartphone applications such as Snapchat. The photos were then shared unexpectedly, which, though embarrassing, may not necessarily be a criminal act.

“It depends on the age of the person sending the photo, and the age of the recipient, on whether or not it would be illegal activity,” Whitley County Prosecutor D.J. Sigler said. “If someone willingly sends a nude photo of themselves and the person they sent it to decides to disseminate it, there’s no criminal sanction.”

However, if the person wasn’t aware the photo was being taken, it is a crime.

Sigler did not comment on the website specifically, but said these situations are taken on a case-by-case basis.

“If there’s illegal activity, you can bet I will prosecute it,” Sigler said. “Each case is very fact-sensitive.”

Sigler has a message to all technology users, young or old: “The internet is forever.”


Proactive parenting

“This is a problem that needs to be pushed to the forefront,” said Columbia City Police Detective Chip Stephenson. “It needs to come out. Parents need to have discussions with their children.”

Parents should put thought into how, when and where they allow children to utilize their devices.

“There has to be a balance,” said Chip Stephenson, Columbia City Police detective. “You can’t be super strict, or when they get out and have a taste of freedom, they’ll be too wild. But, if you’re too open, they’ll be too wild. It’s a learning experience, and a lot of parents are just trying to do the best they can.”

Talking to your children about phone and internet usage should be an ongoing discussion — not a one-time deal, Stephenson says.

Even children as young as elementary school should be taught about safety.

“It’s a stranger-danger type of discussion,” Stephenson said.

There’s games that have messaging within the application.

“Can you imagine a young child having a conversation with someone across the country, who would be looking for pictures of little kids?”

If it’s not mom, dad or friends, children should know not to respond to messages.

As children approach middle school, parents should teach about social media and other applications. As the child reaches high school, more of the responsibility should be placed on them, but parents should keep in mind that high school students are not adults.

“We need to teach them about responsible personas,” Stephenson said.

Parents should also be aware of what kind of items are allowed on each form of social media. Instagram is one of the “safer” options, whereas Twitter is different.

“If you search for pornography on Twitter, there’s tons of it,” Stephenson said. “With a cell phone, there’s so much information out there and it’s all at the palm of their hands. We can’t protect them every minute of every day, but we need to reinforce good habits. They will soon be responsible for their own.”

Some children and young adults are learning about that responsibility the hard way.

“What they do can come back to haunt them,” Stephenson said. “There could be a photo that was sent years ago that comes back. Some are shocked to know that photos on Snapchat aren’t permanently deleted. It’s naive to think they disappear forever.”

The effects aren’t always immediate.

“You could get a scholarship for college, and a few years down the road a photo like this could pop up online,” Stephenson said.

It could even affect people later in life.

“Some employers require job applicants to provide all of their social media information,” Stephenson said. “Kids only think about today. They don’t have the maturity to think long term. These things have long term consequences that even the parents don’t fully understand.”


Parent University

“If parents aren’t aware of these dangers, we’ve lost the battle,” Sigler said. “Keeping an engaged and informed parent is crucial.”

Whitley County Consolidated Schools’ Technology Director Jake Hoag and Dean of Students Andrea Salmon recognized the need to educate parents, and joined together several entities for the Parent University on Tuesday.

“There’s some sort of incident with electronic media on a daily basis,” Stephenson said. “Many kids spend 6-9 hours a day on electronic media. The teachers see the kids and how they interact with those devices — sometimes the parents don’t see that.”

The goal is to educate adults on legal and parental responsibilities, and empower parents to take charge of the situation.

“A lot of parents are hesitant to take a device away from their kid,” Stephenson said. “For many kids, that’s their only form of communications. If they don’t have texting, apps and email, they are on an island by themselves. Sometimes, that’s a good thing.”

Parents say they don’t want to go through their child’s phone and they want to respect their privacy, but Stephenson says that’s not the best approach.

Parents can offer privacy to their child, but it should be similar to the privacy they get in their bedroom, Stephenson says.

“If they’re making meth in their bedroom, you would go in their room and take care of the problem,” Stephenson said. “If they’re acting inappropriately with their phones, you need to take care of that. Kids don’t understand the ramifications. It’s our job as parents to teach our kids.”