Competing with MySpace for safe space

School officials are working to teach kids and their parents to avoid perils while using Internet

October 22, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Amber Thompson has her Internet routine down pat.

She logs on to her Web page and checks to see whether she has received any new comments about the design or content of her page.

Next, she scrolls down to a slide show she created for her brother, who is serving in Iraq, and clicks on the top photo to start the show.

"This is how I communicate with my brother and my friends," said the 15-year-old Havre de Grace High School sophomore. "It's a great way to share things with people you are close to."

Amber uses MySpace.com, a popular social networking site used by a growing number of children and teens to create personal profiles.

"Over half of my friends have a Web page on MySpace," said Amber, who has about 200 people on her online friends list, all of whom have access to her page.

With more youngsters using such sites and Internet safety becoming a growing concern for parents, school administrators and law enforcement officials are collaborating to educate children and parents on safe computer use.

At a recent PTSA meeting, Detective Richard Lyne of the child advocacy section of the Harford County sheriff's office, made a presentation on Internet safety to more than 75 parents and children.

"It was definitely eye-opening," said Debbie Thompson, PTSA president at Havre de Grace Middle, where Lyne made his 90-minute presentation. "He showed us how easily accessible these sites are for pedophiles and sexual predators."

Lyne's presentation, which he has delivered to school and church groups across the county, includes an explanation of the Internet, an introduction to social networking sites, chat rooms and instant messaging, and a discussion of why children are vulnerable online.

"The days when young teenage girls kept the phone line busy for hours are no more," Lyne said. "Kids just go home and get onto the Internet and use instant messaging to chat with their friends. Instant messaging is the primary form of communication for teenagers."

In some cases, they are chatting through instant messages on sites such as MySpace, Xanga, which provides space for online diaries and journals, and TeenFlirt.com, which contains chat rooms, online locations where people can chat with other users.

No one monitors users of the sites, which are intended for children ages 13 to 19, Lyne said.

"Kids may think they are chatting with a 15-year-old boy, but it could be a 50-year-old man," Lyne said.

Often children give out personal information such as their date of birth or the schools they attend.

"Kids say things in an instant message they would never say to a person's face," Lyne said. "This sometimes includes sexual solicitations, and they don't even know who is on the other end of the conversation."

It is important to educate the children when they start using the Internet, Lyne said.

Amber, who started using instant messaging when she was about 11, said she is careful about what she puts online, especially after learning that anything she puts on her site becomes the property of MySpace, even after it is deleted.

"So I closely monitor what Amber is doing on the Internet and what she puts on her Web page," said her mother, Debbie Thompson.

Sometimes, much to Amber's dismay, that means her mother stands behind her and watches whom she is talking to online and what she is talking about, Debbie Thompson said.

With children becoming so knowledgeable about computers, it is becoming more difficult, Thompson said. Amber's friends have taught her how to erase the histories of the sites she has visited, and kids have developed code language they use when they chat with friends online.

"Sometimes you will see someone type in PW for parent watching or PIR for Parent in Rear or behind them," Thompson said. "She gets aggravated, but I'm still going to do it. And after hearing the presentation, I'm going to monitor what she does even more."

Glenn Jensen, principal of Havre de Grace Middle School, is concerned about the youths without supervision at home.

"My concern is with students who go home to empty houses and have no one to monitor what they are doing online," he said.

Although they have no control over what students are doing online at home, school officials are keeping a close eye on what students are doing online while at school.

Strict policies on computer use include making the students sign a user agreement, which is placed on top of the monitor whenever they are online. Then teachers monitor the usage.

This year, all secondary students have been issued access codes for using computers, said Janey Mayo, a technology coordinator for the county schools. The code allows teachers to look at logs of sites visited and determine who has gone to what site online.

As an added precaution, the school system has a multilevel security system on its approximately 11,600 computers that includes Web filters, anti-virus and anti-spam software, and a firewall barring children or adults from visiting sites in more than 50 inappropriate categories.

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