Cyberspace Safety

Imagine you’re on MySpace and meet a totally cool guy who says he’s your age, lives nearby and has tons of things in common with you. Would you let him into your life—or remember that he’s a complete stranger?

Now, with a few keystrokes, you can reach out to the world. So if you’re going to tangle with the Web, you have to protect yourself from potential risks. And there are plenty.

The most dangerous areas on the Web are probably your faves: chatrooms, blogs and IMs. But, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), that’s where at least one in five kids, ages 10 through 17, receive sexual solicitations every year. Still, most teens think, “How unsafe could it be if I’m sitting online, with my mom and dad in the next room?” Uh, very.

Say you’re hanging out on a social networking site, like Facebook, Friendster, Twitter or MySpace, where you can blog, chat, IM and exchange photos. You think you’re just finger-yappin’ away with another teen but, in reality, you could be talking to—gulp!—one of the many child predators on teen sites looking for his next victim.

Danielle Yates, communications director for The Internet Education Foundation, explains, “Teens just don’t realize the 14-year-old they’re supposedly talking to could just as easily be a 40-year-old man.” Since anyone over 14 can log on to MySpace (while Facebook only requires you to be 13), who knows who’s really out there?

You might think, “But those are teen sites, so only kids use them.” And that’s exactly why predators log on—so they can get tons of information about you. Yikes! Think about it: in your member profile, at a bare minimum, you probably have your name, city and age. Most teens, though, add much more, like hobbies, birthdate, e-mail address, photos, names of friends and daily journal entries.

And why not? If you’re trying to make friends online, you figure you have to describe who you are, right? Problem is, creeps may be reading all about you and could easily track you through your info. Detective Frank Dannahey of the Rocky Hill Police Department in Middletown, Conn., is an expert in online child predators: “Kids think they’re safe on these sites because they’re very naive and trusting. That’s a nice quality, but for going online, it’s not a good thing.”

Staca Urie, manager of Outreach for Netsmartz, explains, “Many teens have a lack of awareness of the magnitude of the Internet—that it really is the World Wide Web. They figure if there are millions of profiles and blogs out there, ‘Who is actually going to see mine?’ But nobody is safe.”

Shockingly, Detective Dannahey has found that most teens using MySpace do not know everyone on their “friends list,” which allows a visitor full access to personal info.

Teens think victimization happens to other kids and that it would never happen to them. “But if a bad guy you meet online finds out where you are and flies or drives for hours to meet you, he’s not going home without getting what he wants—even if he has to force you,” says the detective.

Many girls think sites like MySpace have a strict screening process so sickos can’t log on…right? “They’re doing all they can, like removing inappropriate material but, unfortunately, there’s no way to keep them all off. It’s up to every girl to protect herself online. Nobody else can ensure her safety, not even the police,” says Dannahey.

Wouldn’t it be obvious, though, if you were talking to someone who had evil intentions? Not always. “These guys are good at it. They will be really nice and offer gifts, then casually ask for your address to send the gifts—and kids give it out. That’s the ‘grooming process’ where they put you in a comfort zone so you trust them enough that they can eventually commit a crime against you,” the detective explains. Another clue you’re chatting with a predator is if he asks questions like, “Are you home alone?” or, “Where are your parents right now?”

To pedophiles, going online to find potential victims is “not their hobby—it’s their life,” says Urie, adding, “It’s something they are serious, vigorous and persistent about. They spend hours a day developing an online persona that will appeal to a child.” And the more info you’ve put on your personal page, blogs, surveys or chatrooms, the more info they have to make you trust them online.

It’s impossible to know how many online predators exist, but Dannahey says there are more than the police can go after. What they do know is that they are usually white males from age 26 to over 40. “Online solicitations knows no boundaries,” says Detective Dannahey. “I don’t care if you’re from a rural or urban community, rich or poor. They’re looking for vulnerable kids. “Unfortunately, these crimes are usually not reported because, once kids are sexually assaulted after meeting with a stranger, they are so embarrassed and humiliated that they feel they really screwed up and their parents will kill them. What may be even scarier is that some of these guys don’t even contact you online. They just look at your personal page, and figure out who you are and where to find you.”

Despite the dangers, Dannahey is a supporter of kids using the Internet. “If you prohibit kids from using MySpace, they’ll find a more secretive way to do it. That would be even more dangerous.”

“These sites bring a lot of benefits to children,” adds Yates, “like experiencing new ways to socialize, gather information and use technology. Recently, a school shooting was actually thwarted by kids on MySpace who heard about the event that was to occur and announced it online. As a result, the information got to the proper authorities and the shooting was prevented. So a lot of good can come out of using these sites.”

Urie whole-heartedly agrees, “There is a safe way to use these sites. You just need to know how to be smart about it.”

So how do you stay smart while surfing? If you have a scary encounter online, you should immediately tell your parents, teacher or other trusted adult. Here are some rules to remember from our experts:

Never give out info. Not your real name, address, phone number, e-mail address, birthdate, school, or names of family or friends. Some sites encourage you to post certain info, but the less info that is out there in cyberspace, the less likely you’ll be harmed in any way.

Don’t offer personal details. No description of what you look like, extracurricular activities, or specifics about where you are going, when and with whom. If you do, you’re giving a predator a map of where to find you.

Never send or post photos of yourself. Your friends know what you look like, why risk revealing your identity?

Don’t answer messages from strangers. It will only encourage them. Ignore them, and they will disappear.

Never agree to meet someone you’ve met online. No excuses!

We’ll say it again: Tell your folks if you get a message that makes you uneasy. Protect yourself from being a victim. Safety in numbers, babe.

Tell a trusted adult immediately so she or he can report it to the police and to the website’s administrators. You can also go to, the website for the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children, and fill out their “CyberTipline” form. The form will then be forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency for further investigation.

By: Sandy Fertman Ryan


3/2/2010 12:15:00 PM
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