Saturday, November 04, 2006

Cyberthreats: Does Internet put youth at risk?

by Eric Fingerhut , Staff Writer
Washington Jewish Week, MD
November 3, 2006

Alissa Katz once had an account on the popular social networking site MySpace. But then the Brookeville 16-year-old received some "messages from really strange people."

Although the messages lacked inappropriate language, she thought it odd to receive a note from someone in Australia telling her that her profile "seems really interesting."

"When the first one happened, I just deleted it," she recalled. "But it happened again, and I became more aware of the fact that [MySpace] is so public. I just didn't feel comfortable" having her name, photo and other personal information available to everyone.

So the Sherwood High School junior deleted her MySpace account and has joined Facebook, another online social networking community that she describes as "a little safer" than MySpace. Facebook requires that members be invited to join by another member instead of just being able to log on and join.

Katz is attuned to the potential dangers lurking on the Internet, but are other Jewish teens?

Some local Jewish day schools and national Jewish youth groups are taking steps to make sure youngsters are aware of possible problems.

The issue has gained renewed prominence in recent days with the revelations about former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who was using the Internet to chat with teenagers in the congressional page program.

It also has been hard to avoid a scenario that has been televised scores of times during the past year. A man walks into a quiet house, apparently expecting to have an intimate encounter with an underage boy or girl whom he met over the Internet. The man hears someone telling him that he or she will "be right down," but, instead, the man is confronted by a television reporter and a camera crew.

While the Dateline NBC "To Catch a Predator" series has exposed hundreds of these potential predators on air, and some of them -- including a local rabbi -- have been arrested and convicted of crimes, there could be countless more lurking in cyberspace hoping to connect with a child.

Of 10-17-year-olds online, one in seven has received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet, according to a study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

Parents "need to know what their kids are doing," said computer consultant Debbie Kovalsky, who gives lectures to both parents and kids about Internet safety. Owner of the company Computer Training Wheels, the Sandy Spring resident also works with parents to install "tools to allow them to monitor what their kids are doing," such as programs that provide mothers and fathers with periodic reports of their child's online activity via e-mail.

Pointing to a child quickly covering up or changing a computer screen when a parent walks into the room as a warning sign, Kovalsky suggests that parents talk to their children about online activities and tell them they are monitoring them.

"My kids know I may or may not be reading" their activity online, she said. "We talk about it a lot and they know Mom's in there."

Kovalsky said youngsters can often be revealing too much information and not realize it, providing the hypothetical example of a 14-year-old girl who enters a soccer chat room. Her screen name might reveal her age for instance, and innocently answering questions about her team name, when her next game is or where she lives can inadvertently reveal too much information to someone who might be intending harm.

A number of local Jewish day schools are helping parents by providing their students with information about cyberthreats. At Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, head of school Zvi Schoenburg said a county police officer speaks to the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade computer classes each spring to emphasize the importance of not giving out personal information or engaging in conversations with strangers over the Internet.

Students and parents must sign a form agreeing that they will use the Internet appropriately at school, and not reveal their own or anyone else's personal information online.

"It's important to lay the groundwork for the correct habits" on the Internet, said Schoenburg, adding that "we do the best we can" and that the program has been well-received by parents.

Lessons in Internet safety also are given regularly to the middle school students at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville -- as well as their parents -- said Roz Landy, interim principal of the upper school.

Last year, both students and parents heard a talk on "Internet bullying" -- posting or sending derogatory messages about another person, sometimes anonymously -- from JDS graduate Rachel Simmons, author of the best-selling book Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (the basis for the successful movie Mean Girls.)

Landy, who said a recent ninth-grade parents meeting brought requests for more information on the topic, plans to bring in a speaker to provide tips and answer questions.

She said parents have a particular need for education because unlike some other teen dangers, "they didn't grow up with" the Internet and often don't have a complete understanding of the problem.

One Jewish day school student suggested, though, that the emphasis on Internet safety at her school was overkill. A junior at Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, 16-year-old Rachel Stern said that while "it's good to be reminded, so you're on your guard," the 8-10 student assemblies that she estimated were convened last school year to lay out the dangers of the Internet were "way too much."

She suggested that perhaps some of that attention should revert back to more traditional teen dangers, such as drugs.

Most kids know to avoid becoming friends with "random people," she said.

"We're not going to accept someone as a friend" on a Facebook page "if we don't know them," said Stern, and students are careful about posting personal information on the Internet.

Katz, on the other hand, said her public school hasn't held any such assemblies or provided such information in class. She thinks it might be a good idea to discuss such matters once in a while. She also noted that MySpace, Facebook and similar sites are all blocked on school computers, and such an assembly might be a good opportunity to explain why such a choice was made by the school.

Katz is a member of B'nai B'rith Youth Organization, but said she had not yet tried out that Jewish youth group's own social networking site, b-linked -- which Katz called the "Jewish Facebook."

Celebrating its first birthday this month, b-linked has more than 8,000 members and an extra layer of protection -- the 100 BBYO staffers across North America who are "monitoring the whole process," said BBYO director of marketing and communications Abby Strunk. That includes one person whose sole job is to act as an "overseer" and "make sure everything going on on the site is kosher."

Strunk said that the organization consulted with an Internet security expert while creating the site, and the parents of every teen who registers on the site is sent information about Internet safety for kids.

"Social networking is not foolproof," Strunk said, but she said the site has a strong "self-policing" element. Members can decide who can message them, and block senders they don't want. They also can contact BBYO officials if they believe someone is being inappropriate -- although she said that the site has not had to ban anyone.

Strunk said that BBYO's New York region is working on a Internet safety program with the New York Police Department, and that it could be used as a template for BBYO regions throughout the country.

Meanwhile, North American Federation of Temple Youth is teaching its members about the importance of being ethical in cyberspace.

"OurSpace: Recommendation Regarding Maintaining NFTY's Sanctity in Online Spaces" notes that some statements made online "are in direct conflict with middot, our Jewish values," and that the group's leaders should be "vigilant about helping to maintain NFTY's shem tov, good name."

The statement has been distributed to all 19 regions of the Reform movement's youth group, after its importance was graphically demonstrated at the group's board meeting this summer.

NFTY president and George Washington University freshman Dean Carson said that the group printed out 5,000 pages posted by NFTYites on the various MySpace, Facebook and other Web sites and tacked them in a meeting room.

"There was a lot of very inappropriate stuff," from photos to language, on the sites, and "it got to a lot of people," many of whom deleted their MySpace sites as soon as possible after the event.

"They didn't realize, as leaders of our movement, [they should] make sure they're role models," said Carson.

"When you're [posting] in online forums, you need to be cautious," said Carson. "They're completely open and in the public domain."


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