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The dark side of social media

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Melissa DeDomenico-Payne, executive director of Harmony Place in Front Royal, warns that while an Internet Facebook page can be a great way to keep in touch with family and friends, it can also be a wealth of information for others with wrong motives. Rich Cooley/Daily

Facebook, Twitter, etc. provide sources of communication, also new avenues for bullying, abuse

By Kim Walter -- kwalter@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, email, texting; it's hard to remember the days when such words weren't part of our vocabulary. It seems even harder to feel connected to the world without using at least one of these media on a daily basis.

The Internet and social media networks are used all over the world for various reasons: communicating, reconnecting, networking, to name a few. The Internet also proves to be a good source for educational purposes, as well as support and resources for those in need.

However, with the rise in popularity of social media has come a rise in the number of people who abuse it.

Melissa DeDomenico-Payne knows first-hand the positives and negatives that come from the Internet. She is the executive director at Harmony Place in Front Royal, which offers assistance to those experiencing sexual abuse and domestic violence.

When a new volunteer or worker joins Harmony Place, they are given a training manual along with a large packet on how technology can be used against people.

"We see plenty of cases where technology is used to harass," she said.

DeDomenico-Payne gave an example of a case in which a woman had been videotaped while being sexually abused. The woman recently went to court over it, years after the incident, but the video remains out in cyberspace.

"Imagine something terrible happening to you and knowing that it's available to anyone, forever," she added.

Facebook seems to be a place where people aren't being cautious enough, she said.
Recently, DeDomenico-Payne saw a video that showed a variety of people walking into a house. The point was to compare inviting strangers into your home to "friending" strangers on Facebook.

"Essentially, that's what you're doing. You're letting the world into your life," she said.
DeDomenico-Payne recognizes that the Internet can be a great help to those who come to Harmony Place, and to people suffering from things like depression, threats or unhealthy relationships. Websites and blogs can offer easily accessible support groups, hotlines or other helpful resources. However, if a victim visits their website or sends them an email, she always tell the person to clear their browsing history, as a partner or abuser could find that information and makes situations worse.

"The Internet is a mechanism; it's the people behind the computer that you need to watch out for," she said.

She advises to make sure you know who you're "friending" on Facebook, and check privacy settings to limit the number of people able to see your status and pictures.

Harmony Place also provides children's services, and DeDomenico-Payne thinks that to keep youths from getting into risky situations, it's important to provide them with a healthy home life. If youths don't receive attention or support at home, then they will look elsewhere, and can often find it via the Internet, she said.

Before working at Harmony Place, DeDomenico-Payne worked for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

"Parents need to monitor their kids and keep lines of communication as open as possible," she added.

Warren County Lt. Kahle Magalis said the Sheriff's Office is currently working on a case regarding online threats and harassment. The agency has had several others involving social media, including three or four predator cases in the past two years.

"These cases are coming from adults and children alike," he said. He added that the issues aren't just originating on Facebook and Myspace anymore, but have started to invade online gaming devices like Xbox Live.

"Just because you live in a small town doesn't mean you're immune to these types of crimes," Magalis said. "It's a worldwide venue."

Property crimes are also related to the use of social media, he said. Magalis warns those preparing for a vacation to not post a destination or length of travel time until after their return home, as a criminal could use that information.

DeDomenico-Payne questions if society is prepared for the dilemmas that come from technology.

"All it takes is copy, paste and send," she said. "Information isn't just flat there on your screen."

After working at the Sheriff's Office for more than 10 years, Magalis knows that the Internet has helped him do his job solving crimes in more than one instance. He said that real-time information is beneficial, but it's not always that easy to use.

"To put it bluntly, people can get you coming and going on the Internet," he said. "But, common sense usually wins the day."

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