Back to School: Reading, Writing and Internet SafetyVirginia is the first state to require public schools to teach Internet safety. The mandate is in response to concerns about sex offenders and other adults preying on young people they've met through MySpace and other social-networking Web sites.
As students return to school in Virginia, there's something new in their curriculum. Virginia is the first state to require public schools to teach Internet safety.
The mandate is in response to concerns about sex offenders and other adults preying on young people they've met through social-networking Web sites such as MySpace. It's one of several steps states are taking to try to protect children and teenagers online.
George Washington High School in Danville, Va., is one of the largest schools in southern Virginia. But there's one thing almost all of its 1,800 students have in common — MySpace pages.
Gene Fishel, an assistant Virginia attorney general, came to the school auditorium to give a lesson about Internet safety — especially on social-networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Xanga that teenagers often use to communicate, and criminals sometimes use to prowl for victims.
'A Breeding Ground'
"MySpace is a breeding ground for these sexual predators," Fishel says, "and there are all sorts of cases happening now where predators have tracked down their victims off MySpace. And they abduct them, they will rape them, and do all sorts of things."
Fishel tells teenagers to follow the same rules online they would in any public place: Don't talk to strangers, don't share personal information, and don't agree to meet people who approach you on the Web. It's a message all Virginia students will hear this year, now that the state has become the first to require Internet safety lessons in school.
Attorney General Bob McDonnell is sending his staff to classrooms across Virginia to warn about online dangers.
"Young kids don't see how they could possibly get hurt at a computer in their own home," McDonnell says. "Parents don't know enough about the Internet to have the conversations they need to have with their kids. And so that's why we're doing this. The key now is education."
Requiring Parental Consent
McDonnell is one of several state attorneys general who've made online safety a priority. But some of them say education alone isn't enough to protect young people. In Connecticut, North Carolina and other states, officials also are calling for stronger government regulation of social networking sites.
North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is pushing a controversial proposal that would force minors who want to use the sites to get their parents' permission first.
"It's better for their protection that younger kids not be on these sites," Cooper says. "And if they are, the parents ought to know about it, the parents ought to give express consent and they ought to monitor these sites very carefully."
Cooper wants sites to verify each user's age and require parental consent when people under 18 try to sign up. But legislation to that effect stalled in North Carolina this year, and similar proposals died in Connecticut and Georgia — amid strong opposition from Internet privacy advocates and from the social networking sites themselves.
At MySpace, the most popular of the sites, chief security officer Hemanshu Nigam says online consent forms would do little to deter predators and could easily be faked.
"The requirement to check against some database that a parent is in fact a parent, that is not something that can be technically implemented because you can never tell who's a parent just by being online," Nigam says.
MySpace says it is pursuing security measures it considers more effective. It's removed thousands of sex offenders from the site, strengthened privacy options and is working on software that allows parents to monitor some of the things their children do online. Nigam says education — not new laws — is the best way to protect young users.
"When you're sitting at a computer, you are not going to see a hand crashing through your monitor that grabs your child and takes him into this nether land of danger," Nigam says. "The real issue is has your teen been educated to make the right decisions online."
Approached by Strangers
Back at George Washington High School in Virginia, a lot of students who heard the Internet safety lecture said they were already familiar with the potential dangers on social networking sites.
Jay Banks, 14, says she's approached by strangers online all the time.
"A lot of people try to send me messages on MySpace, and I think they're either pervert freaks thinking they could get to know me better if I end up talking to them," Banks says. "But normally I just delete every message that they send me."
In fact, Banks says she's decided to stop using MySpace, partly because her mother has expressed concern about those messages.
But classmate Chardnae Flowers doubts many other students here would agree to do that, even if the site started requiring parental consent.
"They find ... each and every way they can to get into MySpace," Flowers says. "You can block it one way and we'll find another way. I mean, it wouldn't be that hard to hack into it."
Supporters of parental consent concede some teens likely would find ways around it, but they say it's worth trying nonetheless. And some of the nation's attorneys general say if sites like MySpace won't require consent voluntarily, they're prepared to go to court to force the issue.
These are tips compiled from the National Cyber Security Alliance's StaySafeOnline, GetNetWise, NetSmartz Workshop, Microsoft, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's CyberTipline and SafeTeens.
Keep your computer in a central and accessible location in your home and be aware of other computers your children may be using.
Use the Internet with your children. Let them show you what they can do online, visit their favorite sites and maintain a dialogue with them about what applications they are using.
Teach your children never to give out personal information (name, address, phone number, school, hometown) to people they meet online in chat rooms or on bulletin boards.
Know who your children's online friends are and oversee their chat areas.
If your children use chat or e-mail, advise them not to meet in person with anyone they first "met" online. Remind them that not everything they read or see on the Internet is true. If you feel it is OK for them to meet their online friends, insist they bring you or trusted friends along and meet in a public place.
Talk to children about not responding to offensive or dangerous e-mail, chat or other communications. Do not delete the offensive or dangerous e-mail; turn off the monitor, and contact local law enforcement.
Talk to children about what to do if they see something that makes them feel scared, uncomfortable or confused. Show them how to turn off the monitor and emphasize that it's not their fault if they see something upsetting. Remind children to tell a trusted adult if they see something that bothers them.
If you suspect online "stalking" or sexual exploitation of a child, report it to your local law-enforcement agency. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) has a system (CyberTipline.com) for identifying online predators and child pornographers.
Internet accounts should be in the parent's name with parents having the primary screen name, controlling passwords, and using blocking and/or filtering devices.
Implement parental-control tools that are provided by some Internet service providers and available for purchase as separate software packages. Remember: No program is a substitute for parental supervision.
You may be able to set some parental controls within your browser. Internet Explorer allows you to restrict or allow certain Web sites to be viewed on your computer, and you can protect these settings with a password. To find those options, click "Tools" on your menu bar, select "Internet Options," choose the "Content" tab, and click the "Enable" button under "Content Advisor."
Don't give out information about yourself like your last name, phone number, address or school -- without asking your parents first.
Never e-mail a picture of yourself to strangers.
Be suspicious of those who want to know too much. There's no rule that says you have to tell them where you live or anything else personal. Trust your instincts. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, leave.
Avoid chat rooms or discussion areas that look sketchy or provocative, and don't let people online trick you into thinking of them as real-life friends if you've never met them in person.
If somebody says something to you that makes you uncomfortable, or if somebody sends you something or you see something that makes you uncomfortable, don't look around or explore: Get your parents instead -- they know what to do.
Making plans to meet your Internet buddies in real life is usually a bad idea. If you decide to do it anyway, have your parents help make the plans and go with you.
Don't open up e-mails, files or Web pages that you get from people you don't know or trust. The same goes for links or URLs that look suspicious -- don't click on them.
Don't give out your password, except to responsible adults in your family.
Be honest about your age. Membership rules are there to protect people. If you are too young to sign up, do not attempt to lie about your age. Talk with your parents about alternative sites that may be appropriate for you.