(AP Photo/Greg Baker)

AYER/SHIRLEY -- At the Dec. 10 Ayer-Shirley Regional School District forum on cyber safety, Prevention & Education Coordinator for Middlesex Partnerships for Youth Inc. Ariana Coniglio opened the eyes of a number of parents.

After sharing some startling statistics on the ages and numbers of youth using social media, privacy settings and "sexting," the discussion turned to cyberbullying.

Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites or fake profiles.

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, 43 percent of teens reported that they have been victims of cyberbullying in the last year.

A difference between bullying and cyberbullying, Coniglio said, is that, with the latter, kids are not seeing the social cues and reactions one would see if the bullying were face-to-face.

"There are no real consequences online that they can see," Coniglio said.

The anonymity and 24-7 availability of social media also exacerbate cyberbullying.

"Limit the time kids can use their phones," Coniglio suggested. "They don't need it when going to bed, and nothing good is going on late at night."

Because many children will not report cyberbullying for fear of retribution or their phone being taken away, "Don't put the blame on the kids being cyberbullied," she said.

"What do you suggest, then, if a child is getting cyberbullied?" asked a parent.

"There is a law on cyberbullying, so the school needs to be notified, and they go forth with an investigation of what is going on with the students," Coniglio replied. She recommended that parents print out whatever it is and bring it to the school.

"What if you're worried about a child getting backlash, or retaliation for telling?" someone asked.

"It's better to address it and deal with it and let them go forth with bullying counseling. A school cannot allow retaliation," Coniglio answered.

"You really help the schools if you can limit your child's access to the Internet in the evening," said Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School guidance counselor Sharon Webb. "They are doing it at midnight, and then sitting in class with that person during the day. It is increasing every year. You can help us out a lot by helping with your kids at night."

"It is everyone's responsibility," added Coniglio. "You are the one allowing them to have the phone. It is a privilege. ... You as parents have to teach them how to be responsible online."

Sharing passwords

According to a 2011 Pew Internet and American Life Project study, 30 percent of teenagers admitted to sharing passwords, and girls are twice as likely to do so as boys.

Coniglio said it is important to share with girls how to maintain appropriate boundaries within relationships. Not doing so "can lead volatile and vulnerable teens to use humiliating online secrets against each other."

"Talk with kids about the importance of not sharing everything in relationships," she said, adding, "It is illegal to use someone else's ID online or in person without permission."

Online predators

Coniglio pointed out a couple of recently prosecuted Massachusetts cases in which predators took advantage of minors using online chats. Minors can chat on videogames, on Facebook, and many other sites.

"To kids, they are friends, not strangers," Coniglio said of these online relationships.

According to a recent survey of 8,000 middle and high school students conducted by Emerson Hospital, 30 percent of girls reported an in-person encounter with someone they first met online.

Those with a history of abuse and who provide pictures of themselves are the most likely to be involved, Coniglio said. "Direct parent involvement mediates the risks."

According to a 2010 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health, in the majority of online sex crimes against minors, the offender used the victim's social networking site to gain information about the victim's likes and dislikes.

Information that could lead a predator to your door includes name, age, birthday, phone number, school schedule and location via cellphone, Coniglio said. In addition, GPS technology on cellphones allows users' precise locations to be pinpointed.

Coniglio stated that children should not post photos or videos if they show backgrounds that reveal identifying information, or sexually provocative poses that show too much skin.

"Keep personal information personal," she said. "It is like a personal billboard."

Games and apps

Children play games on interactive websites on which they can create chats with strangers beginning at an early age.

Coniglio suggested that parents know what games their children are playing, and either turn off the settings where they can talk with strangers, or teach them that these are strangers, not friends.

"It is important to protect your reputation on social networks," she said. Four out of five college admission offices check social networking sites before admitting students. Kids are not thinking about the long term; they are living in the moment."

One of the apps she warned parents about is Snapchat, a texting application wherein posted photos "disappear" after 10 seconds.

"You can take a screenshot of that, or a photo of it with a cellphone, and then what can you do?" Coniglio said. "It isn't really private, so be mindful of what you are putting out there."

Other apps Coniglio mentioned are Formspring, a live chat that is usually X-rated; Tinder, a matchmaking app that facilitates anonymous communication between users; and, ASK.fm, which has been linked to several suicides in the U.S. and UK. WeChat is another that is gaining in popularity.

Teach your children well

"Teach your children that what you do and say online has social implications and consequences, and that it is illegal to electronically harass or threaten someone online," Coniglio counseled.

When a parent asked how one could secretly access children's passwords, Page Hilltop Elementary School guidance counselor Betsy Dolan responded.

"It has to be all about you loving them," she said. "They will all tell you 'no other parent has asked for that,' and 'you don't trust me,' but just know that you are better off having that. Let them know that you want to know what (they) and other kids are doing so you know what they are being exposed to."

She said that by going on her own child's account, she saw that other kids had said some "self-harm things." She told their parents, "and they were very thankful. So never feel nervous or fearful about asking the kids for that information."

"Please know that when you come to us, we will be behind and supporting you and your child. That is our priority," added Lura A. White Elementary School guidance counselor Shannon Bischoff.

Some Useful Websites

For additional information on monitoring and filtering tools, visit parental-control.org.

Commonsensemedia.org is a trustworthy source for information about the world of media and technology, and offers helpful reviews of games and other media.

For an "ask the experts" site, visit netsmartz411.org.

To "Ask the Mediatrician," Dr. Michael Rich, or find information on understanding and responding to the effects of media on children, visit the Center on Media and Child Health at cmch.tv.

For information on Middlesex Partnerships for Youth Inc., visit middlesexpartnershipsforyouth.com.