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Social media can provide a platform for people to connect, but it also can be a dangerous place, especially for kids.

Understanding the threats and how best to equip kids to be savvy online was the focus of a panel Thursday at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, as a part of the daylong 2017 Yellowstone Conference titled "Kids in Crisis."

When Kim Chouinard, the social media panel's moderator, asked the audience of about 80 people on campus at the Franklin and Merle Robbie Chapel how many of them use social media, the vast majority raised their hands.

“Technology like FaceTime allows us to interact when distance is a barrier, it’s amazing,” said Chouinard, who also is executive director of YGBR’s community based-services. "But there’s a darker side too.”

The conference was hosted by the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch, which is marking its 60th anniversary of working with children and teens in crisis.

“This is an opportunity for us to come together and begin to talk about problems from our perspective, and more importantly to work on some solutions,” YBGR CEO Michael Chavers said.

Kids in Crisis conference

Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch CEO Michael Chavers introduces the 2017 Yellowstone Conference: Kids in Crisis on Thursday.

For adults, using social media might mean realizing how much more their friends own, do or connect with others than they do, she said. For kids, it’s going online the night of the prom or a big game and realizing they’re one of a few people who aren’t there.

“They feel left out, lonely, isolated,” Chouinard said.

Sometimes, other people post photos of them and tell them how horrible they look. That kind of bullying can push people toward drastic actions, like suicide.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, we didn’t have that type of social media,” she said.

Why people like it

Using social media can feel good in a way that becomes addictive, observed panelist Nancy Thorson, a licensed clinical social worker.

Thorson told a personal story to illustrate: Once she shared a humorous account of her dog, Bruno, on Facebook, figuring it would get a big response. Nothing happened.

Then she realized she’d only shared it with two people, neither of whom are ever on the social network. When she shared it with everyone, she got the feedback she’d hoped for.

That kind of response is a sort of pleasure reward, a dopamine rush that grows addictive because it’s unpredictable. Teens crave that same kind of boost.

“Moderation is the key,” she said. “And the crucial thing with our teenagers is relationship, if we can talk to them and they tell us what’s going on.”

If they’re experiencing the painful side of social media, that kind of communication helps parents mitigate the negative impact, Thorson said.

Kids in Crisis conference

Panelist Dan Vierthaler speaks on the social media panel speak during the 2017 Yellowstone Conference: Kids in Crisis at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch on Thursday.

Graphic content

Retired FBI agent Dan Vierthaler worked for the federal agency for 26 years, with the last 11 years focused on child pornography and the online exploitation of children. He saw an evolution over time, of the ages of children in the photos growing younger all the way to infants and toddlers.

“Those images had become much more graphic and much more violent, with a strong dose of emotional content,” he said.

The volume of the material online also grew exponentially larger, with the collections seized measuring in terabytes rather than gigabytes. In part it’s because of technology, he said, but secondly because of the growing demand by pedophiles for cutting-edge materials.

Vierthaler said he’s also noticed outside of his work that the threshold is rising for what’s acceptable in advertisements, online and in other media in terms of sex and violence. Not only are adults exposed to it, but so are children at younger and younger ages.

“It influences what a child ages 10, 15 or 18 is willing to do online and how they’re willing to use the technology,” he said.

Parents can make a difference, he said. Vierthaler cited a study that showed children’s use of social media doesn’t put them at higher risk for engaging in risky behavior.

“Good parenting, solid parenting — that’s what influences their risk-taking behavior,” he said.

Parents making the hard decisions of what their kids can and can’t do online, and on social media, is a crucial, difficult job.

“That’s the real challenge at the end of the day,” he said.

Early use

Dr. Erin Amato, board-certified in psychiatry for adults, children and adolescents, consulted experts before Thursday’s talk — her 18-year-old twins and 13-year-old son. One of them told her about a friend who received nude photos from an acquaintance and offered to share them.

“I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that,” Amato said. “But it makes me sad to think how young they are when they’re exposed. How easy it is, even if they’re not looking for it.”

She pointed to a recent article in The Atlantic, which posed the question whether smartphones are destroying a generation of youths. One of many questions it raised is whether social media pushes youths toward depression and suicide, or whether it attracts that population.

Like Vierthaler, Amato talked about the importance of parents involving themselves in their kids’ use of social media. One helpful tool, she said, is a social media contract.

She called it “a helpful launching point for discussion,” in which parents talk to their children and teens agree to use social media within specific boundaries. It ranges from kids sharing their passwords with their parents to agreeing to admit when they become the victims of online bullying.

Kids in Crisis conference

Panelists on the social media panel speak during the 2017 Yellowstone Conference: Kids in Crisis at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch on Thursday. They are, left to right, Nancy Thorson, Dan Vierthaler, Dr. Erin Amato, Tara Bradford and Brent Edgmond.

Potential predators

Tara Bradford, senior vice president of DeliverFund, a nonprofit that seeks to counter sex trafficking, reminded the audience that Montana isn’t immune to the problem, and it involves youth as well as adults.

The proliferation of technology has opened a door for sexual predators to hunt children, Bradford said. In chatrooms, adults can pose as youths to seek out victims.

“The traffickers are looking at the social media posts, the videos, the comments that our children are making, and they’re picking out the most vulnerable,” she said.

That includes children who hate their home lives and want a way out, who are lonely and friendless, who are hungry for a boyfriend, or who feel ugly and rejected.

“We have to help our children understand what their posts on social media are speaking to adults who want to do harm to them,” Bradford said.

Therapists, teachers and educators also should beware that the vulnerable also include runaways, homeless teens, and those in foster care. And she urged them to be aware of potential sex traffickers.

Traffickers might own multiple cellphones, carry no ID, talk about trips to different states, and offer those they're grooming expensive shoes and clothing. That lets the perpetrator “get to the point where they will take that child and not let them come home,” she said.

Challenges in parenting

Brent Edgmond, a school counselor at Laurel High School, said technological advances bring great benefits, but they also open a Pandora’s Box of problems. And having worked with students for so many years, he's seen what they can do to skirt around their parents' best efforts.

“I have kids (who) buy burner phones so when their parents ask to see their phone, they show them that phone,” Edgmond said.

There are even apps that kids can use to get around any parental controls that are put on their phones, he said.

He told the story of one student who met a man online she thought was her age and looked like heartthrob Justin Timberlake — not the middle-aged man he was. He lured her to Seattle, and law enforcement was able to find the girl only because one of her friend's told her mother about the girl's plan. The man was arrested at the airport.

In the U.S., youths who want to drive have to practice with their parents, take classes and pass tests before they get a license, Edgmond said.

“What do we do to educate people how to handle social media?” he asked.

Panels continued into the day, tackling areas that YBGR sees as crises in Montana confronting kids, parents and those who seek to help them. Those topics included chemical dependency, suicide prevention and funding for mental health.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.