November 15, 2005 4:00 AM PST
As teens embrace blogs, schools sound an alarm
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Parents and educators are particularly concerned about MySpace because it's so popular among high school students, and most profiles are open for anyone to view, according to Aftab. She has a whole Web page dedicated to addressing parent's concerns about the site, which she says is "a prime target of harassers, cyberbullies, child predators, scam artists, and other unscrupulous individuals."
Another problem with the site is underage users, Aftab said. MySpace prohibits children younger than 14 from creating profiles and restricts access to the profiles of 14- and 15-year-olds. But some children lie about their age, and MySpace has struggled to adequately police the problem, she said. Her Web page includes instructions for parents for deleting underage MySpace accounts.
The company acknowledges these problems and says its safety guidelines are designed to address them. In addition to meeting with law enforcement officials and consulting with Aftab on public safety issues, MySpace also monitors its pages for users too young to be on the network, and it removes them. "You try to do as much as you can," MySpace co-founder Kyle Brinkman said in an e-mail interview. "But there's only so much you can do to police it."
As for Facebook, the company says it designed its site to be the online equivalent of a gated community, with membership requiring affiliation with a school or an invitation to join. That helps keep out problem visitors, said Facebook spokesman Chris Hughes.
Regardless, colleges are beginning to do more to educate incoming students on the potential perils of Internet usage. In the wake of the Behl tragedy, VCU is planning to incorporate information about the safe use of blogs and personal Web pages into a safety training course for freshman, starting this winter. Officials at the University of Virginia, where students have complained of Web-related stalking and ID theft, recently urged students to exercise caution when posting information to blogs and personal pages.
Parents, too, can do their part.
"Certainly there are many teens who are savvy with this stuff and understand the risks, but there are those that don't," said Amanda Lenhart, co-author of the Pew study. "It's the role of adults to remind kids that this is a public space."
Child advocates and educators agree that asking teens about what they're doing online is a good first step. Do they have a blog? Who's on their instant message buddy list? Do they have a profile on a social networking site like MySpace? What are they doing to protect their identity online?
If a teen has a blog or online profile, parents should also ask for permission to visit it, some experts said. And they may want to give an older teen a day or two of notice before viewing the site, Aftab said.
And Lenhart agrees. "I would recommend parents approach the child first," she said. "Just as a diary is a specific, personal space, (peeking at a teen's blog) would be seen as an invasion of privacy."
The goal is to engage teens in honest, open discussion, so parents can offer guidance.
From a safety perspective, parents should focus on how teens handle contact from strangers online and whether they disclose any identifying information, such as name, address or phone number, where they go to school, or where they work, Aftab said.
Aftab tells parents to focus on the "three Cs": content, contact and commercialism. Content--what kids are actually saying online and how they say it--often comes as a shock to parents but isn't always the most critical thing. "Their first concern is (obscene) language," Aftab said. "Their bigger concern should be about contact: who can communicate with them that they don't know."
Many of the teen-oriented blog sites now have privacy options that let users restrict who can view their site, giving access only to people they know. Parents concerned about safety may want to suggest or insist their teen use those access controls, Aftab added.
The "greater abandon" shown by the Pew survey's Net-savvy "Internet omnivores" can be a positive force, leading teens to use the Web for multimedia projects; create Web pages for friends and school projects; and help adults handle tasks online; among other things. And the new sites and tools can help drive these creative endeavors. But, as with any powerful implement, caution is key.
"We certainly recognize there are benefits to these sites," VCU's Lepley said. "So the idea is to really talk to students about how to use this kind of tool safely."
CNET News.com's Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.
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