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Social media puts all kids under scrutiny, not just hers, Laureen Harper says

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OTTAWA - When a young person's private photos suddenly go public, it makes no difference who the parents are — even if they happen to live at 24 Sussex Drive.

And Laureen Harper says kids and parents need to know they aren't powerless to do something about it.

The prime minister's wife has lent her political star power to a promote the website needhelpnow.ca, which offers tips and resources for combating online exploitation.

"You never want to put anything down that can hurt you but they do because they're kids and it happens," Harper said in an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday.

"So the website is a way to give people information and to teach children no, your life isn't over, there are things you can do."

Earlier this month, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons died after a suicide attempt which her family says was linked to photos circulating online of an alleged sexual assault.

Rehtaeh's mother Leah is scheduled to sit down Tuesday with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss changes to the Criminal Code regarding the online distribution of intimate images without consent.

Laureen Harper has been involved in promoting online literacy among kids since 2010.

The issue of the risks of posting photographs came to her attention last year after a visit to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

The centre had been running a tip line for people to report child pornography and then started getting complaints in which those reporting the pictures were also the victims, said Lianna McDonald, the centre's executive director.

"They were desperate to figure out how they could get images off the Internet," she said.

"We quickly realized that this is the first generation of kids having to navigate through the use and abuse of new technologies."

The website includes tips on how to ask for the removal of pictures, which Harper said she found especially important.

"As a parent when this happens, you can't even imagine. What do I do? Where do I start?"

Harper says she's tried to teach the couple's two children, Ben, 17, and Rachel, 13, to be careful with what they post online, since the information can spread much farther than intended.

"I tell my children, something happens, it's out there forever, you can never get it back," she said.

Her children do have some presence on social media; Ben's Twitter account had even been public until its existence was noted by reporters earlier this year.

But there's no difference in the pressure social media places on her children and others who live more private lives, she said.

"If everything you did is pushed around the high school or your neighbourhood, do you think the kid cares that it's across the country or across their high school?," she said.

"A child can be devastated and think their life is over on a Monday because some photos were sent out over the weekend. So I don't think it makes any difference. I think any child at any school is in the public."

Harper suggested she doesn't take a heavy-handed approach to policing her kids' online lives.

"Each parent knows their child the best, and some children can have more privacy than others," she said.

"But if I thought for a minute there was a problem I'd be right there."

Harper joined Twitter herself earlier this year, though says she doesn't use Facebook.

She said she's enjoyed the ability social media gives her to promote various charities.

"It's very positive and fun but you hear stories from other people it's not quite like that, especially with some teenagers," she said.

Keeping up on the technology helps her understand what her own kids might be up to online, but there are limits even to that, she said.

"I like it (and) try to keep in touch but who knows, kids can always surprise you in ways of getting around things," she said.

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