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Social media is changing the way teenagers communicate, structure their days

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 By Tara M. Heath 


Social Media has become part of daily routines, especially for teens. Almost all teenagers have social media accounts and 78 percent of teens have smartphones. Our world seems to revolve around social media, and most people are constantly on a phone, iPad or computer throughout the day.


Teens have created a daily routine, and most don’t even realize it. They wake up and frantically look for their phones to check their text messages or see who posted what on Instagram and Facebook. Even during school hours they find a way to get on and use their social media apps. Teens would rather text or chat via social media than talking to communicate with one another.


Take a look at this infographic provided by Teen Safe that shows a typical day in the life of an app-addicted teen.   



Life’s Journey series: The pursuit of happiness

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girl with balloonsBy Denise Morganthall 


“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – a well-known phrase in the U.S. Declaration of Independence meaning to pursue happiness as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. It is the freedom to live as one chooses, and simply to be happy. Isn’t that what we all want?


Being happy really comes down to being content with yourself and your life. You need to decide what brings you happiness then make it happen. What makes one person happy may not bring the same joy to another. But why are some people happy and others are not? It may seem like a complex puzzle, but the answer is actually quite simplistic in that we have the power to make our lives positive. Most truly happy people are optimistic and live by the Law of Attraction, which means whatever you dwell on shapes your life. So if you fill your mind with happy thoughts, you will attract happiness.


Of course it’s not practical that everyone is happy go lucky all the time. Every one of us will encounter some sort of tragedy or difficult times, even if it is only the stress of trying to accomplish all that needs to be done when there never seems to be enough time. And it is OK to feel sad or stressed because if we were happy all the time, that feeling would eventually lose its impact. As Dolly Parton said, “If you want the rainbow, you have to put up with the rain.”


Researchers have found that living a balanced life that incorporates family, friends, work, personal growth, spirituality, community and health can help you achieve happiness. Happier people have actually been known to live longer, healthier lives. Sometimes it is as simple as looking for humor in trying situations or purposefully doing something that will bring you joy. We all know the importance of exercise in that it can help prevent diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, but it is also known to release endorphins that give you a feeling of euphoria.


Some people think money will buy happiness. But while it can afford you material items that might make you outwardly more comfortable, it does not impact true happiness. When lottery winners were interviewed about how their windfall affected their lives, most were no happier and many actually found themselves broke a few years later. It’s the same effect we sometimes see with celebrities who have every material possession yet still struggle to be happy. It is easy to take for granted all that we have – our families, a roof over our heads or a reliable car to drive. We forget to stop and appreciate the little things. The secret to true happiness is to listen to your heart and let your head tell you how to follow your heart’s path.


Keeping children safe online could be a matter of life or death

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hooded-internet-guyBy Bevin Theodore 


There is no doubt social media has its advantages. Businesses use it to promote their goods and services, share industry updates and showcase special events. Individuals rely on it to network and keep in touch with friends and relatives who live far away.


Yet while social media can be helpful in both professional and personal circles, Janene Holter, a special agent with the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, also warns it can be detrimental. During a recent workshop at KidsPeace, Holter challenged attendees to take a closer look at their social media strategies, asking questions like “What are your priorities and values?” “Who are your friends?” “Who are their friends?” For people working in the behavioral or mental health field, online “friends” should never be former clients.


By now, most social media users are savvy enough to realize that information posted online remains there forever. But did you know that once content is on social media, you no longer own it? Holter shared the story of a third-grade teacher who took a vacation to the Dominican Republic and posted some photos of herself on the beach to Facebook. The owner of a gentlemen’s club saw one of the pictures and used it for the company’s billboard, which happened to be a few blocks away from where the teacher worked. When she requested they take it down, the owner refused because once content is online the original poster no longer owns it. The teacher lost the fight and her job.


It’s even more confusing for children and teenagers, who view burgeoning friend lists as a mark of their popularity. They are also more inclined to share personal information online or trust strangers who reach out to them.

“Social media is changing the dynamics of the definition of a friend,” Holter said. “Unfortunately we are seeing that students feel invincible.” 

And it is that false sense of security online that leads many young people into trouble. A teenager who would never get in a car with a stranger who pulled up outside her school connects with someone much older online and eventually agrees to meet in person. That was the case in “Alicia’s story,” one of many educational videos produced by the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General that share true stories. Alicia was a 13-year-old girl who lived near Pittsburgh. She befriended “Christine,” 14, online, and the two began sharing intimate details of their lives. After a 13-month online friendship, “Christine” revealed herself to actually be a 38-year-old man. Alicia says she was angry and stopped talking to her for an hour or so, but she resumed the relationship because she still felt close to this person.

“He always made me feel pretty and special,” Alicia recalls. “That’s what every teenager wants.” 

To make it up to her for lying, the man told Alicia he would pick her up and take her out in her neighborhood. At 6 p.m. on New Year’s Day, Alicia walked out of her parents’ home – without a coat, or money or a cell phone – to meet a total stranger. From the moment she got into his car, her life was forever changed. He took her to West Virginia, where for four days he and his friends kept her in a dog cage, chained to the floor, wearing a shock collar, as they raped, beat and tortured her. It was only after the ringleader videotaped the assaults, live streamed them online and someone saw the footage and called the authorities, that she was saved.

After she was rescued, her mom recalls that she was afraid of everything. She had flashbacks, she couldn’t sleep alone and she had to be homeschooled.

“You do whatever you have to do to survive, no matter how painful or disgusting or humiliating that might be,” Alicia said. “These people want a piece of you … and those pieces are really hard to get back. I’m still trying to find all of mine and glue them back together … My life will never be normal. There will always be something missing.” 

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of Alicias out there,” Holter said.


And even though Alicia’s case is horrific, some are even worse. “Christina’s story” tells the tale of a 13-year-old girl from Connecticut who moved in with her aunt in Pennsylvania when her parents got a divorce. Her aunt, in an effort to make her feel at home, got her a computer for her room – something Holter suggests never doing. Christina made many online friends, one of whom was a 24-year-old man whose wife was pregnant with their first child. They started meeting at the mall every Friday night, though Christina told her aunt she was meeting friends. One week, her aunt went to pick her up, and she wasn’t there. Hours later, police found her body in a nearby stream. She had been strangled.


After looking at her Internet history, authorities were led to her attacker. Holter pointed out that their relationship started innocently, with the two talking and sharing information. Then, the man started promising Christina gifts or calling her “sexy.” He asked her to send him suggestive pictures of herself. They met nine times before he killed her, and authorities were never certain what went precipitated her death. Even after Christina’s killer was incarcerated, he continued to set up social profiles online in an attempt to get young girls to write to him.


Predators are willing to take as much time as they need to build a rapport with these children, and they are experts at mirroring the lives of their victims to create a sense of connection. Holter said a red flag for adults is if a child is closer to online friends than those in real life. She tells parents to ask their children often what they are doing online, what information they are sharing and who their friends are. Holter encourages parents to take away all electronic devices – laptops, tablets, phones – before children and teenagers go to bed at night since most online contact that could be dangerous occurs between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. She advocates that parents not only have all electronic passwords, but that they check them often to ensure their children haven’t changed them. Aside from keeping parents in the loop, these passwords could be critical if a child does get into a dangerous situation because it can take days for authorities to be granted a search warrant to retrieve electronic information. Holter reminds parents it’s not about invading children’s privacy, but about offering protection.


“I don’t care if they think you’re violating their rights,” she said.


Photo credit: EmiliaU/iStock


Learning should not cease when school lets out for summer

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sunflowerBy Caren Chaffee 


As the summer months approach, many youth will be out of school for summer break.  However, learning should not cease just because another grade level comes to an end.


There are many opportunities for youth to continue to learn, whether they are enrolled in a structured educational program throughout the warm weather months. Activities that promote learning do not have to be overly structured, expensive or time-consuming. Rather, the best opportunities are often environmental or situational endeavors.


The outdoors provides an excellent opportunity to explore and learn. Nature walks give youth the opportunity to take a closer look at the beauty of the world around them. They may find vegetation that is unfamiliar to them and choose to do some follow-up Internet research to identify it. Or, they may catch sight of a bird or hear a bird call that they had not heard before. Youth with a penchant for creativity may collect a few items and create beautiful art from nature.  After dark, youth can view the night sky and learn about stars, constellations and planets.


Parks provide opportunities for youth to grow socially. Children typically gravitate to playground equipment and swing sets. Often, even children who are tentative to make new friends are drawn into imaginative play as groups of their peers explore and create scenarios on playgrounds shaped like castles and pirate ships. Unplanned “play dates” emerge as children who may not otherwise spend time together find themselves embroiled in creating new, fluid story lines which change as the “characters” arrive at and leave the playground throughout the day.


Local parks also offer occasions for pick-up basketball, volleyball or baseball games. While these games are excellent opportunities for youth to hone their athletic skills, even more important lessons are learned: Teamwork, cooperation and turn-taking, which are valuable tutorials that youth can carry with them throughout their lives.


Gardening is a popular summer activity. However, not all youth have an opportunity to tend to a backyard garden. If possible, youth can offer to help a neighbor with his or her garden, volunteer to tend a garden at a local park or provide similar outdoor or landscaping assistance at a senior center. Gardens offer excellent lessons on healthy food choices, but more importantly, help children learn the importance of patience and careful cultivation in helping something grow.


Summer months don’t always carry the promise of good weather. In the event that poor weather prohibits outdoor play and learning, one of the easiest and most significant activities that can encourage youth to continue to learn is reading. Local libraries open a world of opportunity at no cost. Research demonstrates that youth who are proficient at reading are more likely to graduate from school. If poor literacy skills extend into adulthood, they represent a significantly higher risk of living in poverty. Promoting literacy among children and youth is one of the most important lessons an adult can impart on a child. In fact, high frequency reading parents are six times more likely to have high frequency reading children. Therefore, it is important for youth to witness significant adults in their lives invested in reading and literacy.


While the warm weather offers a multitude of learning opportunities in the absence of a structured educational program, adults are a key part of cultivating this learning. Significant adults in the lives of youth must help expose them to these opportunities and encourage them to participate in activities that will further their learning.


Former homeless teen shares mental health struggles at SAMHSA's National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day

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Michelle Vance wants the world to know that a stable home environment is the most critical requirement for a young person to succeed in school, find steady employment and have access to necessary health care. And it becomes even more important if that young person is struggling to gain control of a mental illness. Vance was one of five young adults to share their experiences with mental health troubles at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day on May 6 in Washington D.C.


Vance, 24, knows what it is like to have nowhere to call home. As a teenager, she spent six months couch-surfing, sleeping in her car and constantly worrying about where she would find her next meal. She was exhausted, stressed and bedraggled. People often asked her if she was abusing drugs. “It would have been more helpful,” she said, “if someone had asked if I had eaten or slept.”


Vance was fortunate to meet a mentor who found her a safe place to stay and helped her pave a new path, but not before she found herself in some scary situations. “Every night, I had to figure out where I was going to spend the night,” she said, adding that couch-surfing is not really free. “I had to bend some of my own values and beliefs to stay safe.”


Now, Vance is becoming a vocal advocate for other young people dealing with similar hardships, and she is immensely grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate with other young people to hopefully enact change and eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness.


“The only person who will change my life is myself,” she said. “But the support of peers who want the best for me is incredibly helpful.”


Caregivers, teachers of ADHD youth must harness children's interests to aid learning

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By Caren Chaffee 


ADDitude Magazine, a publication whose target audience is individuals whose lives are impacted by ADHD, recently published an article about the “long-term obsessions” of some children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Based on the comments posted by online readers, the author’s perspective resonated with a number of parents of ADHD youth. By “mastering their one-track minds,” parents and caregivers can harness ADHD youth’s enthusiasm and guide them in using their interests as a vehicle to unlock their learning potential.


For these youth, their interests go beyond the typical “phases” that many children experience while growing up. Most children do, in fact, establish interests that are generally age-appropriate, peer-related hobbies and activities that are eventually replaced by “the next big thing.” However, for the ADHD child, the interests run deep and the level of detail into which they delve is extraordinary. ADHD youth with long-term obsessions immerse themselves in the topic, learning all they can about the subject using a remarkable number of resources available to them. They are also able to pass the knowledge on to others with fluency and cognizance.


It was once thought that individuals with ADHD were unable to maintain focus on a topic. However, more recent clinical research indicates that their inability to focus is situational. In fact, it is now recognized that individuals with ADHD are more inclined to sustain focus on activities that are of strong personal interest to them. It is this proclivity to hyper-focus on topics of interest that allow the ADHD brain to absorb and retain the information it gathers related to the topic with indescribable capability.


Parents, caregivers, teachers and other adults in the lives of ADHD youth have a responsibility to help them find the interest that taps into their remarkable capacity to learn. Harnessing this interest is a key component to setting them on a path for success. Many ADHD youth struggle in school, the typical setting in which learning is “expected” to occur. However, for ADHD youth, the process of learning often occurs in a different setting or through a different conduit. The challenge for parents, caregivers and teachers is to find ways to merge school-based learning with the ADHD youth’s capacity to absorb knowledge about topics of interest. This task is difficult, but not impossible, and most importantly, it is a crucial step in the growth of the ADHD youth into a successful adult. Adults close to ADHD youth often say, “I can’t wait to see what he is going to be when he grows up. Our challenge, and our greatest reward, is helping him get there.”

Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month a time to shed light on adolescent safety

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By Caren Chaffee


February brings to mind Valentine’s Day, Groundhog’s Day and Presidents’ Day … days on the calendar that provide us with good reminders to spread kindness, have some lighthearted fun in the midst of a cold winter or honor our nation’s leaders. However, February is also a time to bring attention to a very serious subject that bears importance: The National Institute of Justice has announced that February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month – certainly not cause for celebration, but an opportunity to bring to light a growing threat to our adolescents’ safety.


Although statistics vary due to differences in defining “violence,” teen dating violence is shockingly prevalent: Approximately one in ten youth in grades 9-12 report being a victim of physical violence from a romantic partner within the previous 12 months (according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) and 20 to 30 percent of youth ages 12 to 21 in relationships reported experiencing psychological abuse in the previous 18 months (according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health).


The preteen and teen years are a formative era. During this time, youth have the opportunity to learn the necessary skills to develop and maintain healthy relationships. When teens can foster positive relationships during their influential adolescence, they have a greater opportunity to make compassionate and cooperative connections with their dating partners during their adult years. Exposure to violence can counteract the development of these skills and could instead initiate a pattern of relationship violence that could extend into adulthood (either as a victim or a perpetrator). Therefore, it is imperative that the cycle of teen dating violence is halted through both prevention and intervention.


There are steps that adults can take to keep adolescents safe from the perils of teen dating violence: Maintaining an awareness of teens’ friends and acquaintances and where they are spending their time; keeping the lines of communication open to allow teens the opportunity to talk to a trusted adult; sharing information about TeenCentral.Net, KidsPeace’s free, anonymous online counseling website for teens (which has a special section on teen dating violence); and directly offering to help if it is suspected they are in a dangerous dating situation are all crucial actions. They might save a youth from becoming involved in a violent relationship or help them to abandon an unhealthy and unsafe partner. They may even help to stop a cycle of violence and impact for future generations.

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