WORTHINGTON - It’s no secret that scrolling through social media accounts or exploring other online sources are central elements of most kids’ lives these days.
Keeping youths safe while they engage in their increasingly Internet-centered world requires insight, vigilance and common sense from supervising adults - because not everyone out there has your kid’s best interest in mind.
Hence, the Southwest Crisis Center (SWCC) is hosting a training program titled “Forensic Aspects of Online and Social Media Usage: Implications for Child Welfare, Criminal Justice, Legal and Mental Health Professionals” from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday at Grand Prairie Events in Luverne.
“We expect to have over 100 people in attendance, with many coming from area schools - teachers, social workers, administrators, plus some law enforcement and probation individuals - but really, it’s for anyone who cares about youth or has youth in their lives,” said Sara Wahl, SWCC’s executive director.
Alison Feigh, program manager at the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, a program of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center in Minneapolis, will be the event’s featured presenter.
“Alison is a dynamic speaker who is engaging, smart and knowledgeable about the content at hand,” said Seth Quam, youth outreach coordinator for the SWCC. Quam mentioned that another of Feigh’s distinguishing characteristics is her status as a childhood classmate of Jacob Wetterling.
“For the majority of people we serve at SWCC, whether that’s youth or adults, there is a technology component to their problems - harassment, stalking, trackers being put on people’s phones, meeting people who have intent to harm or even obsessive monitoring,” observed Quam.
Quam, himself a recent graduate of Syracuse University who has family ties to the Marshall area, notes that a gap between how adults use and perceive technology versus how kids are consuming it contributes to exploitation of youths.
“There’s no easy answer, but the impetus for having Alison here and holding this forum came from the fact there’s a generational technology divide between adults and youth,” said Quam.
“This is about trying to keep the young people in our lives safer, and helping them make safer decisions when it comes to technology.”
For adolescents, it’s vital to understand the risks involved with sexting, harassing others by text or via social media or connecting with someone whose true identity may be concealed.
“In our experience, especially when it’s related to sexual exploitation, it can be hard for young people to trust their guts when someone they’re ‘talking’ to online presents a scenario or image of themselves that may not be actually real,” Quam added.
“Becoming a victim of sexual trafficking can really happen to anybody, but there are certain vulnerabilities that can put a person at increased risk - for instance, a history of child abuse, sexual abuse, homelessness, or being in the foster care system or a CHIPS ward,” listed Quam.
But taking away a teen’s phone or online access may not be the answer, Quam cautioned. Indeed, Feigh’s employer has performed studies and discovered that 50 percent of teens admit to being “addicted” to a mobile device; 65 percent say they use social media to feel good about themselves.
“We have to be smarter and better educated about the risks and the pitfalls of technology, and we have to help educate children and youth how to handle the responsibilities that come with using technology,” he suggested.
Feigh, an expert in the field of abuse prevention who has addressed these issues for over 15 years and holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Olaf College plus a master’s in criminal justice from St. Cloud State University, concurs.
“Communication is so important,” she expressed. “Going through ‘what if?’ scenarios works better than lectures, because your young person may tune out a lecture but ‘what if?’ is interactive and allows your young person to process what they may already know.”
Feigh shares a short history of technology safety protocol.
“The first big push was around basic safety strategies, but down the road, the discussion focused more on creating a digital footprint that opens doors,” said Feigh.
“Now, screen time balance is the big conversation, and I think that’s an important conversation to have as a family - and screen time balance for everyone, parents included, is a good idea.”
Red flags that a teen is wading into dangerous contacts with someone online are not always as readily apparent as some might expect, Feigh realizes.
“We live in a culture where it is often assumed young people will step up and reach out when someone is making them feel unsafe, but what we know is that, time and time again, the opposite happens,” she explained.
“For a wide variety of reasons, most youth don’t reach out when they need help and often are groomed into keeping secrets,” Feigh continued.
“That’s why it’s so important for caring adults to know about online and in-person exploitation and to be the ones to start the conversations; personal safety should never rest solely on the shoulders of children and teens.”
Feigh advocates for youth to make multiple connections with reliable adults and community groups, because the wider a child’s experiences, the more possibilities they have for seeking assistance if the need should arise.
“It’s important for young people to have a safety net of multiple adults they can go to for help and support,” advised Feigh.
“Who are the five adults your young person could connect to if they needed to talk?” she queried.
“We say five, because sometimes the person breaking the rules is in that position in a child’s life - and they can seek out one of the other four people, or because sometimes the first person a young person reaches out to doesn’t know how to help,” added Feigh.
“Faith communities, youth service organizations and neighborhood programs, if they are healthy, can be an integral part of that safety net as they provide safe spaces for young people to grow, question and explore.”
Quam, too, is passionate about helping young people achieve that safety net and recover from abusive situations or environments, and he has waded enthusiastically into his job at SWCC .
“I felt motivated to be part of prevention work, and I was drawn to this job of working with survivors,” said Quam.
“I do a lot of prevention education, and we’re eager to work with Alison Feigh to promote and encourage healthy relationships,” he confirmed.
In addition to next Thursday’s presentation, Feigh will meet the following day with students from Luverne’s middle and high schools, as well as with a portion of Worthington Middle School and ALC students.
“I’m very much looking forward to being there,” assured Feigh.
To register for “Forensic Aspects of Online and Social Media Usage,” which takes place on Thursday at Grand Prairie Events in Luverne, visit mnswcc.org and click on the conferences/events tab. For more information or to register by phone, call the Southwest Crisis Center at 376-4311 before noon on Monday.