Tips on Protecting Children from Internet Predators
FARAI CHIDEYA, Host:
And now, some useful tips for parents and kids alike on how to surf the Internet safely. We're joined by NEWS AND NOTES tech guru, Mario Armstrong. Welcome.
MARIO ARMSTRONG, reporting:
CHIDEYA: First of all, what sorts of sites leave kids most vulnerable to adult net predators?
ARMSTRONG: Back in the day, believe it or not, you would used to say chat rooms were probably the most vulnerable. Well, chat rooms has kind of become passé. So what's kind of replaced that and has become more powerful are these what's called social networking websites: MySpace.com, or Facebook.com, or Zanga. And these are basically just social networking sites that kids and teenagers love to use to be able to connect to each other and share their stories with each other.
CHIDEYA: Now, MySpace recently instituted a range of safeguards to protect young users from Internet predators. Do you think they're going to work?
ARMSTRONG: Up until like, you know, several months ago, you could basically log on, create your own profile page on MySpace, and almost kind of say whatever it is you want it to say and do whatever it is you want it to do. Nowadays, that's changed. There's a whole section if you go to MySpace on reports of abuse, how to remove my child's profile, what to do if I'm cyber-bullied against. It's going to still remain to be seen whether or not technology can fight technology. The best tool is going to be education and awareness to our kids, because if MySpace is not the site that people use tomorrow, something else will replace it, and these kids will still need to know how to interact on this online society.
CHIDEYA: And MySpace just instituted this rule where people 18 and over can't reach out to the 14 and 15 year olds online. We talked to 15-year old Rena Hunt(ph) about this situation and she really said a lot of it has to do with how teens protect themselves online, and here's what she had to say.
Ms. RENA HUNT: A lot of people put up like provocative pictures because they think it looks good, but it's really actually a stupid move, you know? Because there are all these people who can look at it, even if they can't see your whole profile, they can see your picture and your name.
CHIDEYA: Mario, many sites, including MySpace, have no way to verify a user's age, so what's to keep an adult from registering as a minor?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, I mean this is a good point and the fact that she said it's a stupid move, it is a stupid move. You know, MySpace's rule has been that you have to be at least 14 years of age, but, obviously, it's been proven time and time again, you have younger kids creating profiles, saying that they're above the age of 14. As well as you could have the reverse, older people saying that they're younger to be able to still communicate these folks.
So unless you're proactive and unless you know what to look for as the telltale signs, to be able to report someone, it's really not going to be, in my opinion, that effective. It is a good step. It's something that needs to continue to evolve and look at.
But like she said, to let 700 million people on the Internet see this image is not a good idea. And most parents aren't even aware that, you know, having a profile may not be all that bad, but lock it down. Make sure that it's private so that people can't just publicly access this information.
CHIDEYA: At this point, what can parents do to protect their children. Or, if the parents aren't tech-savvy, what can kids do to protect themselves?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I'm going to give you a couple of quick sites. Parents, if you're listening, you should take this down. There is a website that I want to share with you called Net Lingo. That's N-E-T Lingo.com, L-I-N-G-O. Kids get mad when I mention this site because it explains all of the acronyms and all of the vernacular that's happening in this online world.
So if you walk up to your son or daughter's computer and they're in the middle of a chat discussion or an instant message and you see the letters P-O-S show up on the screen, that stands for parent over shoulder. That signals other people in the chat room change the discussion. Let's talk about homework. Let's not talk about sex or other things that you may find disturbing.
Another one that's really good is wiredsafety.org. It's a great site full of tools, especially for those that are really trying to get the basics, understand all of the potential dangers and pitfalls. And then another one is called teenangels.com. And I like both of those sites, because you can also print off what is called an Internet Child Use Agreement. You and your child having a printout of things you will and will not do online to better assist them and them more safe online.
As far as kids, what they can do, a couple of things. Number one, you need to know that people will see this information. Don't use your images on your profile. Make sure you have a password-protected profile so only people that you allow can come inside your profile and hang out inside of your account of MySpace window.
The last thing that I would like to say is, I've been seeing, Farai, employers now are using these websites to determine what the character is of a potential hire. And I've heard stories about people not getting jobs because of how much they've revealed. Whether they partied too much or their character just didn't seem fitting to that employment culture.
Also, I've seen this also have impact in college admissions. You have college admissions folks across the country now looking at profiles at potential freshman saying, I don't know if that high school kid who's hanging out with the football team in all these photos with beer in his hand is someone we want to have in our school.
So this goes beyond just these sexual predators and online child pornography. There's cyber bullying and there's all these old real world issues. Identity theft, as well as the ones I just mentioned, that we need to be aware of in this public space called the Internet.
CHIDEYA: Lots of food for thought there. Thanks, Mario.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Mario Armstrong is News & Notes tech contributor. He also covers technology for Baltimore area NPR member stations WYPR and WEAA.
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