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Investigation shows why teens shouldn't 'friend' people they don't know

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SALT LAKE CITY — A KSL investigative report shows that parents should monitor their children's Facebook accounts and that teens shouldn't be Facebook friends with anyone that they don't know in real life.

One mother commented on KSL 5 TV's Facebook page that the advertisements promoting tonight's report prompted her to check her daughter's Facebook account and delete people her daughter isn't friends with in real life.

The investigation was prompted after a Utah mother contacted the KSL investigators to share the online experiment she conducted to convince her young daughter to not get a social media account for several years.

As a mother of a young daughter who was begging to start a Facebook page, Heather knew this was the beginning of years of request for social media accounts. “I have fears far beyond what I could explain in words,” Heather told KSL investigator Debbie Dujanovic.

Heather was frightened that Facebook or other sites could open her daughter up to a stream of strangers with whom her daughter may inadvertently start up a conversation, or give access to personal information. “I've taught her ever since she was little to not answer the door if a stranger was knocking, and if anything, cyber, cyber space and social media is allowing a stranger to look through a window into our lives and into our world.”

The experiment

Instead of just telling her daughter ‘no,’ Heather set up an online experiment. Using Facebook, she established a phony profile of a 20-year-old female Utah college student named McKenzie. She wanted to show her daughter what could happen when strangers try to become friends through social media.

Before long, the profile had amassed a flood of Facebook friends — 800 in a matter of a few weeks — many of whom claimed to live in Utah. There were children, women and men clamoring to communicate with a completely fake person. “My name is prince charming, “one man said. “Hey Mckenzie you're gorgeous,” said another. Another messenger said, “Hey, you look familiar.” “Do we really?” asked Heather who chuckled at the idea a phony person could look familiar to anyone.

The following tips are posted on the Facebook Safety Center:
Tips for parents to monitor your teen's Facebook interactions:
  • It can be tough to keep up with technology. Don't be afraid to ask your kids to explain it to you.
  • If you're not already on Facebook, consider joining. That way you'll understand what it's all about.
  • Create a Facebook group for your family so you will have a private space to share photos and keep in touch.
  • Teach your teens the online safety basics so they can keep their Facebook timeline (and other online accounts) private and safe.
  • Talk about technology safety just like you talk about safety while driving and playing sports.

At the same time, the content of other people’s posts were becoming very inappropriate to the point where Heather could not allow her daughter to view the page. “What they're saying, what kind of language they use, the pictures they take," alarmed Heather. It didn’t take long for daughter Hailey to realize how vulnerable she may be if she had a social media account, “because people can stalk you or kidnap you and find out where you meet.”

KSL investigator Debbie Dujanovic caught up with mom Heather in February to see how the nearly 3-month experiment was progressing. “McKenzie has got 1,127 friends. It opened my eyes to the dangers that are out there.”

The experiment proved successful. In the end, Hailey decided she’d put off getting a Facebook page.

The police

Because Heather’s profile represented an adult female, KSL investigator Debbie Dujanovic asked a police officer, who once investigated online sexual predators, to demonstrate the online dangers facing children.

Officer Ken Hansen of the Unified Police Department in Salt Lake County established an undercover profile of a 15-year-old Utah girl named Kyla. “Kyla doesn’t exist,” clarified Dujanovic. “No,” confirmed Hansen.

But that didn’t seem to matter to men on the other side of the computer. Before long, “Kyla” had several requests from men who wanted to become friends on Facebook.

Hansen says social media can help people disguise their true ages and allow them to use someone else’s photographs to make themselves seem more desirable to children. Take for example one older man who was trying to communicate with one of Hansen’s undercover profiles. “He might be about 21?” asked Dujanovic. “He says he’s 37,” explained Hansen.

He pointed out that the phony profile of the 15-year-old Utah girl was receiving unwelcomed interest. “As it sits on Facebook, she's getting more interest from males.” He explained that predators will groom a child so they let their guard down. “So there is a disconnect as to what is a stranger?” asked Dujanovic. “Right, they lose it,” said Hansen. “It’s like, this is my friend, he really cares about me."

Hansen recalls one Utah case where an online connection led a young girl to flee to the Northwest. “One local girl met a guy from Washington and she ended up getting pregnant from that contact.”

In a matter of two weeks, Hansen’s phony Facebook profile had received a disturbing message of its own. A male who had friended “Kyla” declared his love for her and asked the 15-year-old to marry him.

Child psychology

Douglas Goldsmith, Ph.D., of the Children’s Center in Salt Lake City, says children want to have friends and Facebook allows them to have an endless supply. Goldsmith explained it from a child’s point of view, “I want to be liked, and I want to be popular, if only I could be popular. They forget there's 300, 400, 500 people lined up reading this.” He says a child’s developing brain can’t always rationalize danger. “There is something very real called the 'personal fable' which is what happens to other kids will not happen to me,” explained Goldsmith. “That personal fable allows me to drive recklessly down the canyon roads because I'm capable and nothing can happen to me, I'm invincible."

The solution

Hansen and Goldsmith urge parents to get involved with their child’s social media accounts. In other words, know who your child’s Facebook friends are.

Hansen says children shouldn’t friend people who aren't real-life friends. The example he uses is this: If your child can’t walk up to someone in a restaurant or store and recognize them as a friend from school or church, then your child shouldn’t be friends with them on Facebook.

Hansen strongly urges parents to use Facebook’s privacy settings to limit who can see their child’s posts. He suggests doing this on a home computer and testing it to make sure the same settings apply to your child’s mobile device.

Goldsmith suggests parents have regular discussions with their children using examples — perhaps news reports they’ve watched together — to highlight dangers children face on the Internet.

Facebook sent an email to KSL urging parents to review Facebook’s safety page to learn how to protect children on Facebook:

Start a conversation with your teen

1. Do you feel like you can tell me if you ever have a problem at school or online?

2. Help me understand why Facebook is important to you.

3. Can you help me set up a Facebook timeline?

4. Who are your friends on Facebook?

5. I want to be your friend on Facebook. Would that be OK with you? What would make it OK?


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