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Strategies for staying safe on social media suggested at YMCA

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Naomi Nelson of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota hands out "cute" or "creepy" response cards to 9-year-old Ruby Carlson (left), 8-year-old Bella Fluegge, her mother Cristina Fluegge and Carlson's mother, Cassie Stenson. The interactive discussion about social media safety was part of a free event at the Brainerd Family YMCA on Wednesday. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

Accusations of sexual harassment by celebrities have dominated national headlines in recent months, but local parents may be more concerned about how best to keep their children safe.

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is hosting a series of events this month to increase awareness around sex trafficking and exploitation in the area. January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

"I actually attended the session they had last week at Central Lakes College on sex trafficking and the showing of the 'I Am Jane Doe' documentary when I heard about this event at the Brainerd Family YMCA," said Cassie Stenson, a 29-year-old mother.

Stenson attended Wednesday's free event at the YMCA with her 9-year-old daughter Ruby Carlson. Hosted by LSS Saving Grace, the interactive discussion involved other concerned parents and grandparents how to stay safe using the internet and specifically social media.

LSS Saving Grace provides youths under age 18 with safe housing, helps them come up with an individualized safety and life plan, and provides basic needs to help them find safe shelter and rebuild their lives, as well as prevent other youths from being trafficked.

Stenson said of her daughter, "She's just at an age where she's been interested in the internet—YouTube, looking up videos and playing video games online and that kind of thing—so I just wanted to make sure that she knew about staying safe while she's doing those things."

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota is a St. Paul-based social service organization, with programs serving residents in each of the state's 87 counties.

LSS central Minnesota regional navigator Naomi Nelson, housing, youth and family resources director Kathy Sauve and Saving Grace case manager Kate LePage took part in role-playing exercises at the YMCA event to illustrate how sexual predators prey on youths.

"What a (sex) trafficker or exploiter is going to do ... is they are going to try to get into your life and every little aspect that they can," LePage said of adults who try to insinuate themselves into a minor's online life. "The more they are in your face, the more you feel like you know them."

Tactics employed by predators include pressuring youths to send them explicit photos that can be used later to blackmail their victims into committing more dangerous acts, winning their trust with compliments and flattery, or insisting they have a special bond or common interests.

"It's OK to block somebody or to 'un-add' them," Nelson told the parents and their children at the event. "It's OK to do that. Don't feel like you're going to offend them. Make your safety a priority."

Nelson told those at Wednesday's event the internet, like most technology, is not inherently good or bad. Rather, how it's used dictates whether it benefits individuals—such as connecting people and educating them—or harms them, like cyberbullying and body shaming.

"Sending pictures oftentimes are not going to end up in a good way. ... If you send that picture, stop and think, 'Would I want this picture on a poster around my school?'" Nelson said of sharing photos on Facebook or via text messages that can quickly circulate and be views by others.

LePage added, "A lot of people will blackmail with pictures, too, so once you send one, they'll say, 'I'm going to show this around if you don't send me a more explicit picture or more pictures.'"

LePage stressed the importance of not victim-blaming youths who may be inherently trusting or naive about the methods sexual predators may use to gain a child's trust, such as lying about their age, but rather she emphasized children should feel safe to talk to their own parents.

"I give her a time limit and tell her she can be on the internet for a half-hour, and I always make sure to know what websites she's on and what she's doing," Stenson said of her daughter.

Victims of sex trafficking can get help by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or send the text HELP to 233733.

Also a 24/7 hotline was established to connect youth survivors of sex trafficking to help, according to LSS Saving Grace, and that number is 866-824-3770.

"I'm hoping to learn more tonight and to be able to give people advice after this, but parents should always be aware of what their kids are doing online," Stenson said Wednesday at the YMCA.

For more information about LSS Saving Grace and its community series about sex trafficking and exploitation in central Minnesota, call 218-824-3770, email SavingGrace@lssmn.org or visit www.lssmn.org.

Online safety tips

• Never agree to do anything that feels uncomfortable.

• If something seems "off," trust instincts.

• It's hard to make a good decision when feeling confused. Be as clear as possible in the mind about what "is" and "isn't" in the best interest.

• If needing help, talk to someone trustworthy, such as a friend, teacher or parent.

• If receiving any unwanted sexual comments or content online, the best thing to do is remove oneself from the conversation.

• Understand safety settings.

• If one is under 18 and someone is pressuring to engage in sexual activities or is sending explicit material, call the police or the CyberTipline at 1-800-843-5678.

Source: Lutheran Social Service Saving Grace

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