Parents: Do you know where your children are?
Beware of information superhighway’s dangerous detours
by Karen Mahoney
Sunburn, bee stings, cuts and poison ivy can take the fun out of summer. While keeping an eye on the outdoor health and safety of kids is important, overseeing the veiled indoor dangers is just as crucial. Blogs, personal Web sites, instant messaging and networking sites such as MySpace.com can be good ways of keeping up with friends during the summer months. A useful tool for children, the Internet can help kids do their homework, research a paper, read about their favorite television program or comic book character at home, school or in the library. While the Internet gives children access to millions of people, it gives millions of people access to them. It can be a dangerous place indeed, admitted Eric Szatkowski, special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice/Division of Criminal Investigation since 1991, who is assigned to the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force in Milwaukee. He specializes in investigating computer-based sexual predators of all types, including those who solicit children for sex online in chat rooms and through instant messaging and e-mail, as well as those who collect, distribute and/or create child pornography. MySpace ‘one of the scariest sites’ During a recent presentation of “The Dark Side of the Internet” to Waukesha Catholic Home and School Association, Szatkowski outlined examples of the online exploitation of children and offered practical advice for parents in keeping their children safe. One of the scariest social networking sites is MySpace, confirmed Szatkowski. “It’s become one of the most popular fads in the country in that almost every kid in middle school and high school has one of these sites,” he said. “It’s just in their eyes a cool thing to do. It’s their chance for their 15 minutes of fame.”MySpace allows individuals to create their own personal Web pages. The pages may share likes, dislikes, school activities, favorite movies, actors or musical groups. Some of the details frequently give online predators easy access into their lives. Teens may also provide provocative photos of themselves, seemingly innocent to themselves and their friends, but inviting the attention of unscrupulous outsiders. “They have become the new playgrounds for predators because kids put so much personal information about themselves on the Internet,” Szatkowski said, referring to sites like MySpace. “It is pretty scary; kids just don’t realize that there are so many perverts and creeps out there looking at this stuff.”In a June 2006 school newsletter, Jeffrey Johnson, principal of Racine St. Catherine High School, encouraged high school parents to monitor their teens’ involvement in MySpace and while using the Internet. “Parents, know your student’s Web site involvement and know how they interact online,” he said. “Staying in contact with friends and acquaintances is valuable and good. Let the trail students leave through their communications be one that promotes integrity and goodness. Let the destructive elements of Internet communication be expressions that students are willing to stay away from.”Educating children is important, Szatkowski said, but he is concerned about educating parents. While many tools and safety features are available to keep children safe, most often parents do not recognize the potential problem.“There is a vacuum of knowledge on the Internet,” he said. “Parents who have not been brought up in the computer generation just do not understand what their children can get into.”Safe alternativesAs a solution to the growing number of youth who are interested in social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook, FaithStreams network is safe alternative for online activity. Designed for 13- to 18-year-olds, FaithStreams network is not only safe, but it is designed to help congregations increase youth participation and membership. The newest offering by FaithStreams is YouthRoots.com, which serves as a digital, faith-based community and “electronic wing” where religious leaders and their youth members can co-coordinate activities, have discussions and communicate with one another. According to account director of FaithStreams, Melissa Sylvester, the service provides resources to enhance community outreach, support program activities, enrich spirituality and strengthen bonds with members. The first of the online communities, YouthRoots, allows participants to interact at anytime. “It is a powerful tool that lets youth leaders extend the reach of their programs through the Web, and build stronger faith connections with their members,” she said. “Leaders can create a group ‘portal’ with features such as forums for community discussions, calendars for promoting and managing events, publishing of original articles, photo galleries, and private messaging. A control panel puts overall group management and member permissions into the leader’s hands.”Similar to MySpace, individual members have their own pages with blogs, photo galleries, comments and private messaging features. Under the guidelines established by their leaders, members have control over who can view their individual pages. “All users have access to articles on issues of relevance to faith communities, to public forums and blogs; and to streaming radio stations that blend inspirational and positive, secular music for specific faith group audiences,” Sylvester said, adding, “YouthRoots provides leaders with the tools they need to interact with, involve and inspire their students.”Aware of the unsavory and unsafe online opportunities for youth, YouthRoots was created as a highly secure space where young adults can grow spiritually and socially, acknowledged Sylvester. “When a group leader launches a new group, he or she must identify a congregation with which that group is affiliated,” she said. “FaithStreams Network staff then personally contact the congregation to verify the leader’s identity. This is only the beginning of a very extensive set of security measures.”Each portal and member page has a permissions grid where the leader or member can determine what portions of their pages are visible to other members, friends, family, other YouthRoots members or the public. Similarly, group leaders and members can “opt-out” of the “find a group” or “find a member” functions, to preserve their privacy. Members are encouraged at the time of registration to choose a username that does not contain personally identifiable information. YouthRoots encourage leaders to invite parents, guardians or other responsible adults to the “family” role within the portal to encourage additional oversight of member pages and content within the group’s pages. Each page has an easy-to-locate “Report inappropriate content” link to alert the YouthRoots support team to suspicious or inappropriate images, comments or content for timely removal.Learning to use e-mail, Listserv (online discussion groups requiring a subscription), or Usenet groups (online discussion not requiring a subscription) are vital components in learning, exploring and having fun on the Internet. Just as important are safety features, such as software filters to block inappropriate content from kids, and practicing safe Internet habits with your children.The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests in a recent publication about online safety that setting rules for computer use should be similar to those used for television, movie and video rules. It is imperative for children to be wary of people on the Net who can be mean, rude or criminal. A few guidelines will help keep Internet usage safe, productive and fun. • Set limits on the amount of time your child can spend on-line each day or week. Consider using an alarm clock or timer in case you or your child loses track of time.• Do not let surfing the Net take the place of homework, playing outside or with friends, and pursuing other interests. • Make sure your child knows that people online are not always who they say they are and on-line information is not always private. • Never give out personal information or credit card information.• Never share passwords. • Never arrange face to face meetings unless parents approve and will accompany the child. • Never respond to uncomfortable messages. • Never use bad language.Additionally, relocating the computer into a public area within the home may help to curtail children from venturing into inappropriate Web sites. Filters block unwanted materialFor the concerned parent, there is a trove of products that block unsavory or disturbing Web sites. Software filtering programs such as NetNanny claims to protect children from “upsetting and unwanted material” for a monthly or yearly fee. It blocks porn sites and rough language that would slip by BeNetSafe.com, another online filtering service. More important than the Web blocking programs is communication with children on Internet safety. It’s important to explain which Web sites are appropriate and to observe their favorite Web sites, such as RuneScape, one of the most popular online role playing games. Set in the Middle Ages, players earn “money” by obtaining skills such as archery, crafting, blacksmithing, and mining. An ongoing game, players select their own life path and meet players from all over the world by participating in RuneScape’s chatting feature, similar to other instant messenger services. While RuneScape offers the opportunity to develop skills, manage money and meet people, there are a few drawbacks, such as password stealing, scammers, and bad language.The chatting features pose a danger if children are sharing personal information and RuneScape has policies in place aimed at preventing players from using foul language. Players can hit a “report abuse” button if they feel they are being abused. RuneScape also offers a parents’ guide online that explains the game, discusses player safety and offers healthy living tips for gamers. If RuneScape is too violent for some children, other safe alternatives exist. See sidebar for examples.