Saturday, January 26, 2008

Scary situation

Bridget M., 15, had a lot of fun at her cousin's party last January. At the gathering, she and nine other girls in the New York City area hung out, played games and gossiped. They ended up taking crazy photographs of each other posing as fashion models. But the fun ended days later, when Bridget's cousin e-mailed the pictures to one of the girls at the party. The girl posted them on her MySpace page.
The photos were meant to be seen by the partygoers alone. But with the click of a computer mouse, they ended up on several more profiles and began to attract attention online. "We didn't think it through," Bridget told TFK. "We didn't think anyone else would see them."
Luckily, the images also caught the eye of Bridget's uncle. He immediately contacted the girls' parents, and the photos were removed from the pages that could be accessed by strangers.A Growing Worry
Bridget's experience is not unique. As the use of social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook has soared, so has the number of kids who reveal too much about themselves online. The sites allow users to create an individual profile to display personal information and build networks of friends. Some networking sites have minimum-age requirements, but not all of them strictly enforce such rules.
According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of teens online have posted their full name and e-mail address in their profiles. Some 79% have included photos of themselves. And 21% of those who have been contacted by a stranger online have responded to that person.
The Internet has transformed life for this generation of kids, in an overwhelmingly positive way. But sharing personal information, including social plans and passwords, can make networking sites dangerous places for kids. Anything that is posted online can be read and usedofor good or badoby friends, enemies and even strangers. Amber Casselman, 11, told TFK Kid Reporter Machaela Jensen that she e-mailed her Webkinz password to a friend. The friend passed it on to another girl, who changed the password. "Now, when I log in, it doesn't work," said Amber.A Network For Safety
Internet companies are working to protect kids from such online risks (see "Keep It Safe"). Last Monday, MySpace agreed with legal authorities in 49 states to take steps to shield kids from online threats. The new measures include blocking users over 18 from contacting kids they don't know, and searching for ways to involve parents. "This is an industry-wide challenge," said Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer. "We must all work together to create a safer Internet."
Kid-friendly social-networking sites, like Imbee and i-Safe, have created secure places for kids to hang out online. The kids-only chat rooms on i-Safe encourage users to "keep it cool, clean and positive." Imbee requires parents to set up an account.
Some states are working on laws to require schools to teach cybersafety. Virginia has had such a law since 2006. Last Friday, the state's Department of Education planned to launch a program with the PokEmon Learning League. The effort will use interactive PokEmon characters to teach 4,000 schoolkids to think before they type online. Another tip from the program: Speak with a trusted adult if an online situation is troubling.
But parents, teachers, Internet companies and the law can only do so much to keep you safe. They can't be there every time you click "send."Beware and Aware
Katie Canton, of the education site Web Wise Kids, says kids need to protect themselves. How? By being aware of what they are revealing and whom they are talking to. When Katie was 15 years old, she agreed to see a stranger she had met in a chat room. As she told her plans to her parents and friends, Katie became aware of the danger involved. She decided not to meet her new "friend."
"It's easy to think that you're safe online because you're in your bedroom," Katie told TFK. "But it's your job to protect yourself and your friends." As Bridget M. would surely agree, thinking through your online actions is a good start.

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