Recently, a friend of mine, let's call her Susan, started receiving threatening messages on her MySpace account. Strange, morbid notes were sent implying actions against her friends, mixed with frightening admissions of worship and adoration. Then the text messages started.
It turned out that Susan had inadvertently added this cyberstalker to her friends list, giving the person access to her private MySpace page. Susan also has the unfortunate habit of putting some personal information on her site. She would answer harmless looking bulletins, posting her parent's names or how many siblings she has. She would post pictures of her and her friends at recognizable local places. The threatening person was able to use the information on Susan's site to make it seem like he/she knew all about her. Everything about her. Susan didn't really know who he was.
So my question: how does anyone know who they are really communicating with online? And how do we control what information we do put online? These are not new questions, not in the least, but ones that still need debate.
Recent research by the software company Sophos revealed that 41 percent of people using the social networking site Facebook gave out personal information to a made-up profile, the picture of which was a giant green toy frog. One person even went so far as to divulge their mother's maiden name. Putting personal information on the Internet is like painting the combination to the safe on the side of the store.
If a 22-year-old can't tell who the people are she's allowing access to her MySpace site, how can younger kids?
And what are these kids supposed to do when someone starts threatening them? Susan took down her page, reported the person to MySpace, changed her cell phone number, and called the local police. The police told Susan not to worry about the threats -- that about 98 percent of them are just jerks trying to mess with other people for kicks (MySpace, however, took down the profile of the person making the threats). But what about that other two percent of threats? If my friend hadn't taken it seriously, if she'd said, "Oh well, I'm in no danger, it's probably nothing," would we have found her dead in an alleyway somewhere?
Many people do not realize that the atmosphere on much of the Internet is like a scene from a Sergio Leone movie. The wide open spaces may look pristine and ready for development, but who knows who may be riding over the next bluff.
Even the British House of Lords passed a bill recently calling the Internet "the Wild West."
Children and their parents must, I repeat must, understand that locking your doors in not enough to keep kids safe anymore. And locking your computers may not be either. Education is the key. Teach children safe practices for online use. Help them learn to spot the dangerous alleyways of that Internet boomtown. They need to learn who the law is, and who the desperados are.
Web site after Web site offers valuable information for children, teens and parents on how to stay safe on the Internet. The site ikeepsafe.org, for example, expresses this very idea in ways that children can understand. In a video, a cat called 'Faux Paw' has to be taught not to be fooled by what looks like fun. Much like Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, the cat is lured by tempting, fun activities into dangerous Internet situations -- much like the temptation to add anonymous "friends" on social networking sites.
Perhaps the unfortunate thing is that most educational materials are geared towards