Online is forever.

If there was one message Kristi Hastings and Joshua Heggem of Pemberton Law in Fergus Falls wanted to get students to understand it was that reality.

Hastings and Heggem were in Redwood Falls Monday, March 19 to talk with students in the Redwood Area School District about the pitfalls of social media and to warn them that once something has been uploaded to the Internet it can always be found. There is no such thing as having something fully deleted, and nothing really stays anonymous once it is on the Internet. 

Hastings and Heggem talked in three sessions with students in Grades 7-12 at Redwood Valley during the day and then presented the same information to the community during an evening meeting.

According to Hastings, statistics show approximately 94 percent of young adults have their own cell phones and use social media in one form or another at least every day – most are on their accounts more often than that, with many using them hourly.

As attorneys representing school districts across Minnesota, Hastings and Heggem said there are definite benefits to having access the Internet and social media.

“It is a way to stay connected with people,” said Hastings, adding for some students in smaller, more rural communities social media is a way for them to find others who are like them.

The problems come when social media is used the wrong way, explained Heggem, and the consequences for those decisions can be very serious.

Students have been charged with felonies because of things they have posted on social media, and others have had to register as sex offenders and will have to do that for the rest of their lives – simply because of one very poor decision.

Student athletes have lost eligibility to events because of things that have been found on social media sites.

“Things that happen on social media get out,” said Hastings, adding what may have been intended for one person or a small group can suddenly be out there for people to see all around the world.

Hastings said every school has a set of policies regarding technology and the use of it, and she said when a student is using a device that is owned by the school whatever they look at or post through that device is fair game.

While what a student does on their own time with their own device can be deemed private, when one is using a school device, such as a Chromebook, privacy rules do not apply.

While things posted on social media may have been done to get a laugh, the reality is that any post that includes threatening content has to be taken seriously. Threats like this can be deemed terroristic and could lead to criminal charges, Heggem added, so don’t threaten to kill someone or put a hit out on them through social media.

“You just can’t joke about things like this,” said Hastings.

Another area Hastings and Heggem briefly addressed was bullying and cyberbullying, recognizing the reality that students have likely heard that message many times.

Yet, they added, there continue to be comments posted about people telling others that rise to the level of bullying. Some of them are pretty outrageous, said Hastings and Heggem, such as “drink bleach and die.”

Hastings said again what one person might think of as funny may be the one message that pushes someone else over the edge.

“You may be the 10th person who has told them the same thing,” said Hastings, “and that last time might just be one too many.”

For Hastings and Heggem one of the things that continues to happen through social media is when students send nude pictures of themselves to each other.

Hastings said one should never do this, even if those asking for the photo make statements like “you don’t really love me if you don’t do it” or “you can trust me.”

Hastings added that even if the photo is given to a trusted person at the time circumstances change, and a photo sent and kept can always be distributed at a later date. Hastings reminded the students that possession a nude photo of a minor is considered child pornography and is a criminal offense.

There are times when people send things to others that are unsolicited, and when that occurs Hastings and Heggem urged those who are the recipient to delete them as soon as possible, to block that person from their social media site and, if they think it is serious enough, to report it to someone they trust.

There are people out there who intend to do harm to others and have and ability to pretend they are someone else. Hastings said if someone is using a group photo of the person they are claiming to be or the photo is cut out that is a huge warning sign.

Everyone has a good selfie, added Hastings. Hastings and Heggem told parents that it is very important to keep track of things kids are doing online and to monitor what is being posted and received.

Yes, said Hastings and Heggem, kids will find ways to get around that if they really want to, but it is still critical for parents to be vigilant and, if necessary, shut things off for a while to send a message.