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More than 400 middle and high school students, educators and parents participated in the seventh Annual Cyber Crime Prevention Symposium at the California Endowment in Downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 29 to learn the latest information about staying safe online, including how to avoid cyber bullies, Internet predators and more.

Presented by the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect (ICAN) in partnership with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement agencies, the yearly half-day symposium offered cyber safety strategies via age-appropriate presentations for students, with separate sessions for adults.

During a morning workshop for parents and educators titled “In Their Hands,” Deputy City Attorney Tracy Webb presented an overview of many of the rapidly-evolving high-tech dangers currently facing today’s youth, specifically those that are literally “in their hands” daily and just a few clicks away: smartphone apps.

Some of the top trends include the ever-popular “chat” apps (e.g., Snapchat, KIK); apps to “review” people’s looks or popularity, which are often utilized for bullying (e.g., Hot or Not, Peeple); “dating” apps (e.g., Tinder, DOWN); and “text bombing” apps, which allow users to schedule the auto delivery of multiple pre-written texts (often with harassing messages) to select recipients (e.g., Clam TXT).

Other apps and sites parents should watch out for include those intended for posting explicit materials, such as “revenge porn” photos and video; apps specifically for chatting with random strangers (e.g., Omegle); and apps designed to “hide” questionable content and inappropriate apps from parents or loved ones.

“How do we protect our kids?” asked Webb, addressing about 100 adults on hand for her presentation. “By keeping up with the knowledge, by having the awareness of what’s out there, and not putting our heads in the sand. … We have to [know] what’s new, what’s happening, where they’re going, what they’re doing.”

In a workshop for middle schoolers titled “Peer Pressure 2.0: Navigating Sexting, Texting and Peer Harassment in 2015,” Heather Provencher, MSW, emphasized that students possess the power to limit harassing behaviors initiated by others by choosing to ignore “sexts” or requests for explicit photos; by assertively asking the person to stop; and/or by reporting the person to a trusted adult if they continue.

“You want to make sure to get an adult involved if someone is not respecting your boundaries, because you guys all deserve to be 100 percent respected,” she said. If a friend or classmate is the victim of harassing photos or texts being forwarded around school, Provencher offered two suggestions: (1) do not forward the photo or text; and (2) offer to support the friend or classmate who is being bullied.

“Every single one of you guys is so important, and you all have the ability to make a big difference by helping somebody at your school,” said Provencher.

According to Suzanne Healy, coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Victims Assistance Ministry and planning committee member for the symposium, the primary goal of the gathering is to “teach our children cyber safety awareness,” including strategies to help keep them safe online — from what to avoid posting online, to tips for standing up to peer pressure to participate in illicit activities. One of the main messages they try to hammer home is that, despite the illusion of anonymity in the realm of cyberspace, “nothing is ever really private,” said Healy.

“We’re trying to give them the information they need to help them avoid falling into any possible pitfalls,” explained Healy, noting that parents and guardians are an integral part of the safety equation. “We have to be aware [and] proactive.”

As a first line of defense, parents are encouraged to engage their kids in open dialogue frequently and to supervise them as much as possible to determine what they are doing online or via phone apps. Further, rules or guidelines are strongly suggested; some families only allow Internet or phone usage during select hours, or they may ask their kids to sign “contracts” regarding acceptable electronic usage.

Olivia Watkin, an eighth-grader at St. Mary Magdalen School, Camarillo, praised the Cyber Crime Prevention Symposium, noting that it “taught not only me, but also my peers, how to handle ourselves in a variety of compromising situations.”

“There’s a lot of knowledge here and I think there are a lot of opportunities for … teens to learn how to carry themselves through society,” Watkin told The Tidings.

For 13-year-old Izzie Hrabovsky, also an eighth-grade student at St. Mary Magdalen, the main lesson she learned during the symposium was “to not allow something negative, like [attempted] exploitation, to define who you are.”

“The knowledge that I’ve gained here today will help me to protect myself, as well as friends too if they ever go through hard times,” said Hrabovsky.

During the symposium, students were invited to participate in the 2015-2016 Cyber Crime Challenge. Sponsored by ICAN and local law enforcement agencies, the annual contest encourages students to jointly develop cyber safety programs in their schools over the next few months that help promote good “cyber etiquette.”

The winners of the 2014-2015 Cyber Crime Challenge (which were announced this past spring) included first-place winner St. Charles Borromeo School, North Hollywood, which won $1,000; and St. Dorothy School, Glendora, which earned $500 as runner-up. Both winners also received a school-wide “CyberALLY” workshop, which provides effective strategies for responding to cyberbullying.

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