Teen Twitter talk leads to 3 arrests, warnings to monitor kids' hashtag habits

Published: Sunday, Feb. 17 2013 5:05 p.m. MST

Police and educators have been cautioning for some time that parents need to pay attention to what their children are doing online.

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SANDY — Police and educators have been cautioning for some time that parents need to pay attention to what their children are doing online.

Some conversations between teens are explicit. Some even talk about illegal activity. And sometimes their conversations are done in a public format where everyone can see them.

Even parents.

Recently, two 13-year-old girls at Albion Middle School, 2755 E. Newcastle (9130 South) in Sandy, were arrested for investigation of marijuana possession. The girls had arranged to be picked up at the school — during school hours — by an 18-year-old man to go to a house and smoke pot.

Police say the arrangements were made using Twitter.

When one of the girl's parents found out what was happening by going through the daughter's phone, they contacted both the school and police. A search of one of the girl's lockers uncovered small amounts of marijuana, said Sandy Police Sgt. Jon Arnold. A search of another girl's bag at home uncovered additional small amounts of pot.

While police were at the school investigating, the man sent a text message to one of the girls asking where they'd like to be picked up, Arnold said. By that time, the girl's parents and police had possession of the girl's phone. They texted back, instructing the man to meet out front. When he arrived, he was arrested.

The 18-year-old claimed he was picking up the girls for a friend and thought they were 16, even though he was picking them up at a middle school, Arnold said.

Police searched the man's car and found a digital scale. He was arrested for investigation of possession of drug paraphernalia, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and possession of cigarettes. He was also charged last month in a separate incident in Cottonwood Heights with possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, according to Utah state court records.

Twitter is public for everyone to read. Even accounts that are locked or private can have tweets (Twitter messages) that are re-tweeted to the public. Officials say it should be assumed that there is no such thing as a private tweet.

The Canyons School District declined to talk specifically about the Albion incident. But in general, district spokeswoman Jennifer Toomer Cook said, "We think it's great that parents stay on top of their students' social media usage. And it's even better when they contact the school on matters we can help them to address.

"We're pleased that parents continue to partner with schools so we can all work together to maintain and keep a safe school environment," she said.

While marijuana use and teens isn't new or out of the ordinary, if parents want to keep up with what their children are talking about and doing, they need to understand social media, officials warn.

"It's the same as real life. Parents need to know who their kids are hanging out with," said Salt Lake police spokeswoman Lara Jones, who oversees the department's social media activity. "When you can see the kids they're hanging out with, that's one thing. But when you can't see them ..."

While most parents have heard of Facebook, not as many are familiar with Twitter. In 2011, the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors people's tech-based habits, noted a slow migration of teenagers from Facebook to Twitter. The reasons? Some industry analysts noted that some teens were drawn to the idea of connecting more directly with celebrities who are on Twitter.

Others, however, noted there was an appeal among some teens of hiding in broad daylight. Even though tweets are public for anyone to read, many teens use anonymous names when setting up their accounts or they set up multiple accounts so their parents can't monitor all their activity.

It isn't just a matter of protecting a child's personal information, officials warn. It's also a matter of a child being too personal with the information they knowingly put out for public consumption.

The Deseret News looked at several Twitter pages purporting to belong to local middle school students. None of the accounts had any privacy settings. While the majority talked about typical teen topics such as relationships, sports, homework and parents, others tweeted more risque conversations as if they were talking to just one person in private.

In one conversation, a teen girl who claimed to be a middle school student tweeted: "Lets smoke before school tomorrow," followed by, "I'll pitch 10 and you should pitch 10. My brother will hook it up fat." Later, the girl tweeted, "Lets just do a 10 sack. I'll pitch 5 you pitch 5." Another teen used the hashtag "#legalizeweed" in their profile description.

Some of the Twitter feeds these teens subscribe to include Weed Tweets, Dank Tweets and Horny Facts, giving them daily messages about drugs and sex.

Juveniles are going to make mistakes and mess up just like their parents did, Jones said. But in today's world, the biggest problem for parents is catching their kids and staying on top of constantly evolving technology. In the world of social media, she said there's a saying that's there's something new every eight weeks.

Teens aren't just on Facebook and Twitter, but other mediums such as SnapChat,  Instagram, Foursquare and Chat Roulette.

The Empowering Parents Project posted an article on its website, "Parents, Get a Clue: What Teens Are Really Doing Online." The article noted: "What teens don’t often realize is that what gets posted on the Internet, stays on the Internet."

What teens need to realize is that in today's business world, many companies and recruiters search the Internet history of applicants. What may seem like a fun posting today, could come back to haunt them in later years.

The online world for a teen is "very much about confessing, talking about personal things to an invisible audience,'" said Anastasia Goodstein, author of “Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online.”

A 2009 study suggested that one out of every five teens in America has tried sexting — the sending of sexually explicit photos, text messages or emails through cellphones or other devices. A 2010 study by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and reposted by the FBI, found that 20 percent of teens had posted nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves, including 11 percent of teen girls ages 13 and 16.

A 2008 study concluded that 41 percent of U.S. teens between 13 and 17 years old believe their parents have no idea what they are looking at online.

Teens will use the age-old adage that they need privacy, Jones said. And they will argue that they need a phone to let their parents know where they'll be after school and when they're coming home. All are legitimate reasons to have a phone, Jones said. But she also noted, "The same tools you give them to keep them safe can be misused as they explore.

"Parents have got to stay current on tricks and how to hide things," Jones said. "If kids won't let you see their phone, that's a problem. It's the same as real life. (Parents) need to know who their kids are hanging out with. They need to talk about what's in bounds and out of bounds with them. Technology can move so fast. We were all teens once in life. We know they'll push boundaries. Social media can make it that much easier and dangerous."

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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