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Experts: What is posted online, stays online

CONYERS — The Internet can be a dangerous place. Even if an item has been “removed,” it never really goes away, and images posted for just a moment can have a lifelong effect.

“Social media is very helpful in certain aspects in law enforcement, helping finding missing people, but I’m not a big fan of social media for teenagers because kids don’t realize that once put out there, it’s out there. You can’t take it back,” said Newton County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Felicia Jefferson, who also works as the school resource officer at Newton High School in Covington.

Some high school students in Rockdale County have recently faced this reality.

Earlier in March, two 15-year-old students at Heritage High School were spending the night at a friend’s house. According to the incident report, two of the girls got into the shower together when a third girl came into the bathroom and recorded a video of the other two with her cell phone.

The victims found out later that their friend posted the video and the nude images on the social media sites Twitter and Vine without their knowledge or consent, the report states.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, the girls’ parents are handling the situation, but the incident could have become much worse.

Jefferson said many young teens do not realize that posting images like this online could result in criminal charges, such as distribution of obscene materials or online computer child exploitation.

“They do not realize that they are not legally old enough to consent to any sexual act under the age of 16,” she said.

Furthermore, additional counts can be added for every additional person those images are sent to, Jefferson said.

“I almost feel like a broken record,” said NCSO Investigator Sharon Stewart, who has worked for several years on the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. “Use common sense. You have to be aware that anything you post online can be seen by anybody. People take pictures of themselves and their friends, but once you take that picture and post it, it can go anywhere and you can never get it back.”

Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Michael Camp said some of the newer social media sites can give teenagers a false sense of security. For instance, he said, Snapchat is a smartphone app where a picture is posted for seven seconds and then disappears.

“But if someone takes a screenshot of the image, that screenshot will save it forever,” he said.

“You think you can delete it, but it can be found,” agreed RCSO Investigator Jennifer Perry.

At the end of 2013, some students at Salem High School were reportedly running a site through another app, Instagram, where they were posting naked pictures of girls at the school and making fun of them, according to an incident report.

In some instances, the posters would take an image of a random naked girl and identify it as a particular student, but most of the time actual pictures of the girls were posted, the incident report states.

The student who reported this to the RCSO told the deputy that “after about 30 minutes of a picture being posted, they would take the picture down to avoid being caught.”

Part of the problem, investigators say, is that too many teens lack the maturity to handle this high-powered technology.

“Kids are getting phones and technology is handed to them so much earlier, and they just don’t have the maturity. Parents really need to monitor them,” Perry said.

Investigator Stewart in Newton County said most young people think they are having fun with their phones and sharing pictures with their friends and boyfriends or girlfriends.

“So many times they will take a picture of themselves and send it to their girlfriend or boyfriend and then we’re called because once they break up, inevitably someone is going to talk and now the picture spreads like wildfire,” Stewart said. “I guarantee you that the last thing on their mind when they’re sending these pictures to their girlfriend or boyfriend is that their parents could see the pictures, but it happens.”

And not just parents. The images passed around the Web can be seen by extended family members, classmates, teachers, youth leaders, pastors — anyone in a person’s circle.

“The damage is devastating to a person’s reputation,” said Stewart. “If you lose that, it is hard to ever get it back, if you can even get it back.”

The consequences can reach beyond the present, as well.

“If you put in a job application, the first thing prospective employers do is run your name through Google. Everything linked to your name will come up,” Stewart said.

Worse, sexual predators troll the Internet for victims, experts say.

“There is a lot of danger with social media and putting information out there,” said Deputy Jefferson. “One thing about it is you do not know who is at the other end of the computer and predators know that and prey on it.”

RCSO Investigator Sharon Brickle said parents should be the first line of defense. She said they should always check their children’s phones, laptops, computers and other electronic devices.

“It mainly starts at home,” Brickle said. “Parents need to keep on top of their kids and let them know how serious this really is. They should not share their phone or computer with other students unless they are there with them. Parents should also stress not to respond to texts or messages from anyone they don’t know.”

She also said there is a program available that will allow a predator to take a snapshot if a webcam or camera is activated while they are online, so it is important to always close out the Internet and turn off the camera when the computer is not in use.

“Kids will be kids, but these days, with technology the way it is, you have to be on guard,” said Investigator Stewart.