Audrey Love

Pause. Think. Learn.

That’s the challenge presenter Doug Crawford issued to an auditorium of almost 300 seventh-graders Tuesday morning on behalf of Protect Young Eyes, a program educating students on the risks associated with internet and social media use and how to use those platforms more responsibly.

Middle schoolers from across Union County gathered at EOU’s Gilbert Center Sept. 11 for an afternoon of presentations and three different breakout sessions to discuss topics such as cyberbullying, respecting others online, identifying and cultivating healthy relationships and the risks and laws surrounding sexting.

The potential dangers inherent in social media are a reality for children and teens no matter where they live. Aware of the risks, the Union County District Attorney’s office and other community partners decided to do something about it.

According to Union County DA Kelsie McDaniel, “I wanted to do something to address some of the problems we were seeing from c riminal cases we’ve had — where kids were sexting or doing things online without really thinking about the consequences — and we didn’t see any other program that really addressed these issues. We heard from community partners across the board this was a huge problem continuing to rear its head in La Grande and throughout (the) county.”

Some of the issues McDaniel has encountered are children sending and forwarding inappropriate pictures of themselves to their friends via text and making poor decisions on social media apps, including writing nasty comments and cyberbullying. Smartphone ownership has become an omnipresent element of teen life — 95 percent of teens aged 13-17 report they have a smartphone or access to one and 45 percent say they are online on a near-constant basis, according to Pew Research Center.

Protect Young Eyes travels to schools, churches and other organizations across the country providing presentations centered around digital and internet safety, educating both parents and students on the impact of internet/social media on youth, the risks and responsibilities associated with an online presence and how to stay safe on the internet.

“We’re hoping this is a preventative measure before issues occur, and that’s why we’re hitting the seventh grade rather than doing this with the high school,” said Robin Wortman, Union County Safe Communities Coalition coordinator. “When you get to the high school level, a lot of kids already have a social media (presence) or social media issues or addiction. It’s a lot easier to prevent behavior than it is to change a behavior that’s already ingrained. Kids need to know that when you put (something) on the internet, it’s not easy to get rid of. It’s out there for the world to see and I don’t think (they) realize that or think about the implications.”

This is the program’s second year in La Grande, through the combined efforts of the Union County District Attorney’s office, Center for Human Development and Union County Safe Communities Coalition, who formed a committee last year after deciding a more in-depth digital education would benefit Union County’s youth.

See more in Wednesday's edition of The Observer.