Teens on alert after prostitution luring case

Ottawa teens say the recent news of girls being allegedly lured into prostitution through social media has made them more aware of who they communicate with and how.

Experts say kids need to think critically when using social media

Rideau High School students Amber Bellrose, Natasha Weber and Stephanie Boucher say recent news that teens were allegedly luring other teens to act as prostitutes has raised their guard about how they interact on Facebook. (Jeanne Armstrong/CBC)

Ottawa teens say the recent news of girls allegedly being lured into prostitution through social media has made them more aware of who they communicate with and how.

LIVE CHAT | Matthew Johnson from MediaSmarts talks about chatting online safely from noon to 1 p.m.

Two teens were charged earlier this week with criminal offences for allegedly confining and then prostituting out three other teen girls to adult men.

The victims allegedly met the two suspects — and a third suspect still being sought by police — through social media. They  were invited online to a physical location where they were confined and, in at least one case, drugged.

Ottawa police Staff Sgt. John McGetrick said the case is a reminder to teens and their parents to be aware of who they communicate with online.

"As parents, as a rule, we know our children's friends, but do you know their electronic friends?" said McGetrick. "[It's] something to warn your kids … be very leery of how you meet through any social media."

'There are weirdos out there'

It is a lesson not lost on many teens who have mobile phones and use social networks like Facebook.

Staff Sgt. John McGetrick said the teen human trafficking case highlights the need for teens and parents to be careful with their online interactions. (CBC)

Rideau High School students Natasha Weber, Stephanie Boucher and Amber Bellrose said they do not accept friend requests from strangers or accept an invite to a party on Facebook until they have checked it out.

Such practices are just common sense, they say, as is the realization that "there are weirdos out there," as Weber put it, but Ambrose said there is still need for caution.

"Parents underestimate how savvy we are on the web — but sometimes, we will trust Facebook too much and parents have good reason to be nervous," said Bellrose.

Need to make good choices

Matthew Johnson, the director of education for the Ottawa-based MediaSmarts, said one of the key skills for teens is digital literacy. That means understanding how to think critically about what they see online and how to protect their privacy.

He said it is also important for teens to think ethically since the method of how they pass on photos or videos or information can damage the reputations of others.

Expert Matt Johnson says using social media safely starts with being critical about everything you see online. (Dave Brown/CBC)

"It's not just your privacy, it's what you do with someone else's privacy," he said.

Johnson has studied focus groups with teens who are sexting, such as sending a text message with sexual content such as a picture. In that focus group, he said teens were three times more likely to report getting such a message as they were to have sent one, suggesting the messages are being sent to more than one person.

Parents must strike privacy balance

For parents, Johnson said the key is to keep lines of communication open and to discuss issues before they come up.

"The best way is to talk about it early, so your kids know you are not going to freak out and take away access," said Johnson. He also said focus groups have found teens are more likely to share information when they do not feel they are being monitored.

Parents must strike a balance between protecting their children's privacy without invading it, he added. Johnson offers a suggestion from leading social media academic Danah Boyd, who suggests parents get their kids to give them their online and phone usernames and passwords but put them in a piggy bank, only to break in an emergency situation.

Natasha Weber agreed it can backfire when parents are overprotective.

"The outcome could be that kids just rebel against it and find sneakier ways to get around them," said Weber.

With files from Jeanne Armstrong