School leaders, lawmakers -- including U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal -- social workers and teens gathered last week for a candid discussion about cyber bullying. Sponsored by several community organizations, the second annual program, called "Technology: Friend & Foe -- Tips for Teens and Parents," was moderated by television journalist John Seigenthaler.

Kicking off the program, the audience of more than 125 parents and youth watched a viral YouTube video made by a 13-year-old Westport teen about her personal experience with bullying behaviors. By holding up signs, Alye Pollack captured the hearts of viewers by her creative, albeit tragic, plea to be left alone. The video -- dubbed "Words are Worse Than Sticks and Stones" -- has been seen by thousands and is now being shown in middle school health classes throughout Connecticut, said her mother, Audra Kruk. The response has been overwhelming, and she and Alye were in the audience at Saxe Middle School Wednesday night to lend their support to New Canaan's informative program.

"You're a courageous girl," Seigenthaler said.

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With the predominance of cell phones, Facebook, YouTube and a slew of other emerging social media sites, today's teens can communicate with their peers at all times of the day and night. Moreover, these conversations are often recorded and memorialized via the written word, photographs or video footage.

New Canaan High School Principal Tony Pavia explained that while teenagers from his generation may have made poor decisions, their actions were never recorded and posted in a public forum. With digital media, though, a photo posted on Facebook could be copied and forwarded to thousands of people before it's eventually deleted from the website.

"I call it `the new universal bathroom wall,'" Pavia stated. "It's instant. It's thoughtless and it's permanent."

Though cyber-bullying incidents often take place off school grounds, local administrators are charged with dealing with its consequences.

Pavia urges parents to talk to their kids about "the ethical use of technology."

Also, he stated, "If your child is wrong, don't protect them."

Rich Colangelo, senior state's attorney, agreed that it's vital for parents to communicate with their children. A young woman, who was identified only as "Terry," described a psychologically abusive relationship she was involved with in high school. Using cell phones and Facebook, her self-esteem plummeted for nine months while she was controlled by her boyfriend. When she finally opened up to her parents, they were loving and supportive.

Colangelo told parents that, as much as they would like to, they should not react emotionally when their children talk to them about these volatile issues. Likewise, he addressed the young people and stated, "Kids, you have to realize that you can't do this alone. You have to talk to a trusted adult if you're having problems."

Speakers said parents should be on the alert for changes in their young people's behavior and attitude. Some of the warning signs that indicate the presence of cyber bullying, digital abuse and sexting include: spending long hours on the computer; secretiveness about the Internet; behavior changes; crying; fear of leaving the house; lack of interest in social events; and a decrease in self esteem.

Colangelo emphasized the need to set strong guidelines for internet usage, too. "They're still kids and they want boundaries," Colangelo said.

Kari Pesavento, of Children's Connection, suggested taking breaks from technology. "Parents should also model good behavior," she advised. "Don't sit at the dinner table and text. Take BlackBerry breaks. Have technology-free times."

A parent in the audience asked about putting `spyware' on the family's computers. There are software programs on the market that allow parents to see "every key stroke" placed by their children.

Colangelo described spyware as a "double-edged sword."

"The problem with using something like `Netnanny' and "' is that you can't use it like a crutch," he said. "You have to be involved. You have to keep the communication going on."

A panel of teens from New Canaan, Wilton and Weston high schools took to the stage to share their thoughts about the prevalence of social media in their lives. When Seigenthaler asked them how much time they spend on their `devices,' they answered, "From the moment we get up until we go to bed."

However, Catherine Chiocchi, a student at New Canaan High School, said that her mother insists that she maintain strict Facebook privacy settings which limit people's access to personal information. Also, her mother is one of her Facebook friends, which allows her to view all of the posts.

Seigenthaler recommended that parents take the time to thoroughly learn about Facebook technologies, though. He shared that it was only recently that he learned that parents can be easily shut-out of parts of teens' Facebook pages. "The privacy settings are incredibly complicated but parents need to understand them," he stated.

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