SURREY â€” It’s 1 a.m. and a teenage girl gets a text.
It’s her boyfriend. He wants a nude photo. She obliges.
Fast-forward three months, and the relationship has fizzled. Angry, the boyfriend decides to send the photo to all of his friends. Then they send it to their friends. And the snowball continues until hundreds of people have seen the photo.
Perhaps it even makes it to Facebook, now a permanent scar on the girl’s image. It may come back to haunt her as she applies for university, or a job, years down the road.
It’s not an uncommon scenario, says Cpl. Neil Kennedy.
The officer works with the Surrey RCMP Youth Team, specifically responding to school incidents.
Kennedy said the school response unit took 1,100 calls for service in 2014, and about 15 per cent of those involved some social media aspect or online element.
"It could be that there’s been an altercation in the school, whether it be physical or verbal, and what spins out of it is a social media aspect of it. Or reversely, the incident itself could start online," he said, adding the most common cases in Surrey involve threats, intimidation and extortion.
"We have person-to-person name calling or slanderous comments, and we see a lot of rumours and fictitious statements being made. And photos being used as extortion when relationships devolve."
The Youth Team has seen an increase in the amount of cases involving social media in recent years, and Kennedy attributes that to the prevalence of the technology.
"Ease of access has increased. The types of devices where youth can access social media has increased. It also reduced the age where youth are actually getting involved… youth are now entering more into the computer and social media world at a younger age," he said.
"It’s sad to say but I recently had to deal with a case involving Grade 7s."
That’s why the team goes in to speak to and educate students as young as Grade 5. The social media phenomenon has changed the way bullying occurs, Kennedy explained.
"With traditional bullying, it happens face-to-face. You have an immediate incident that would occur and it could often be resolved, often involving one bully and one victim. Today, with this whole aspect of social media, it’s become common to see that one person may initiate the bullying but then it opens the floodgates for other people to jump in."
He called it "closet bullying." "They can do it in private and the only way we become aware of it is if the victim or someone else brings it to our attention."
When it comes to extortion, Kennedy has seen local cases where youth didn’t protect a profile. Someone used photos to assume their identity online, obtain nude photos of a fellow student, then used those images to extort them.
Kennedy urged parents to get involved, and said education is the best prevention – but it has to start at home.
Parents need to model appropriate behaviour online and monitor their child’s use, he said.
"Does someone in Grade 7 need seven social media accounts? Are they having conversations with people they’ve never met?" There are apps on the market that monitor social media activity, designed for parents to keep an eye on things. Courses are offered through the school district for parents to teach them about social media today, the problems that can arise and what to do as a parent.
"It starts with parents making their kids knowledgeable about appropriate social media use. Awareness of what can go wrong… and the consequence of online bullying or cyber crimes."
Those consequences can be severe, he stressed.
"These kids sit behind the screen, whether it’s an iPad or a tablet or computer or even a cell phone… they think that screen is their shield, but it’s not. They type away feeling they have some anonymity but they don’t. They’re leaving an electronic fingerprint when they engage in these types of comments."
Police can track that fingerprint to identify who is behind the screen.
"And they will be held accountable," he said.
Threats of violence can result in expulsion from school and criminal charges.
One 16-year-old boy who was charged in Surrey was surprised to learn he couldn’t travel out of the country due to a charge.
When it comes to sharing explicit photos, one might find themselves facing child pornography charges as a result of sharing them.
"If you’re 17 or younger, you’re basically distributing child pornography. In a context of a relationship the courts have deemed that a private possession contained in the context of a relationship but when a relationship devolves, we’re seeing a huge spurt where one party is upset at the other, and then they start sharing these on social media."
That’s a criminal offence, he said. "What you say, what you post, or what you send in the virtual world – it has real consequences," Kennedy said.
And of course, there’s lasting damage. "It’s not like back in the day when you had a Polaroid picture where you could go back and grab the picture knowing there would only be one of it. Within a second, a digital image can be multiplied thousands of times. You don’t’ know where it ends up.
More and more employers do a social media check on what kind of life you’ve lived and it can be really damaging," he said.
"The choices you make today at 16, 17, 18 may greatly affect your college or university entrance. It’s out there in the social media world for anybody to Google and find."
Kennedy said kids need to fully understand the effects of inappropriate or unsafe online activity, because they can have long-lasting consequences – both for victims and perpetrators.
Police are speaking out about the issue as Feb. 10 is Safer Internet Day. Surrey RCMP encourage people to take time to talk about how to be safe online, stay informed about online risks and seek help.Online bullying and crimes can be reported to police at 604-599-0502, or by calling 911 in the case of an emergency. Kids Help Phone offers 24/7 support by phone at 1-800-668-6868.
Needhelpnow.ca provides information to youth who have been impacted by a sexual picture being shared, and the Surrey School District has an education website at Psstbc.ca/online-safety. Parent brochures are available on the Surreyschools.ca under the "Parents" tab.
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