There is at least one personal computer in two-thirds of America's homes, and more than half of these computers have access to the Internet. Ninety-nine percent of the country's schools have computers, and almost all of them allow students to go on-line. In other words, it's virtually impossible for a child in the United States to grow up today without using a computer and getting on "the Net." And that's worrying a lot of adults.
During a break from classes, Crawford High's technology coordinator, Casey Walker, notes that Nebraska schools have safeguards in place to monitor - and in some cases, control - which websites students visit on-line. "We're required by law to have a content filter on our Internet here for the K through 12 district," he explains. "There're some filters that are better than others. But it's not foolproof. And the kids have been involved with the computers long enough... they know how to type things in here and there that occasionally will get them around. So, you know, it is a good system, but it's definitely not foolproof."
That's why Nebraska has followed the lead of Georgia and Michigan in sponsoring a month-long statewide initiative to promote Internet safety. The state has created a "Safe Kids" website with information on a variety of ways to do that.
In addition, Attorney General Jon Bruning toured schools across Nebraska to spread to the word about staying safe on line. He says April's activities were designed to encourage parents and teachers to take a serious look at what children can access when they go on the Internet and, more importantly, who can find a way to access them.
"We as adults, as law enforcement, can't possibly ensure that all these kids make the right decisions on the Internet," he points out. "But what we can do is give them a little healthy skepticism that when they're on the Internet, people are not always who they seem. And that there is some risk if they carry on a conversation or begin a relationship with somebody on the Internet, there's some risk to them when they do that. And so we're discouraging them, of course, from meeting people on the Internet."
And it's very easy to meet people on the Internet, as Jackie Cuttlers knows. "A lot of the kids get on these sites where they talk back and forth... I mean from town to town to all over. The 'chat' things." Her 7-year-old son doesn't go on-line yet, but she agrees that teachers and parents need to plan ways to be vigilant in monitoring children's use of the Internet. "I've seen a lot of the things that come up and it makes me sick," she says. "I mean... for kids, especially the age that they are, I just think there's a lot of things that get 'chatted' about that maybe lead to other things. It worries me."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that one in five kids online has been sexually solicited or enticed. Some kids have made friends on-line and arranged to meet them in person… only to discover that they'd been chatting with an adult who wanted something more than conversation. While most teens have heard about 'Internet predators' in chat rooms, many are still willing to share personal information on-line without considering how it could be mis-used.
Here at Crawford High, 17-year-old Jill Raben has never encountered the problem herself, but admits "[I] definitely have concerns, because of all what's happened out in the world. I mean, you hear every day [about] girls getting stalked by 40-year-old men and not knowing it. I mean, they're thinking they're the same age." She takes precautions whenever she's on line. "I'm not really concerned about me personally because if I'm on line and I chat, I know every one of my contacts. I don't go into chat lines, so I'm not as vulnerable to that as some people."
Those vulnerable people include those who use social networking sites like MySpace.com, where anyone can create their own web page, including their name, hobbies and interests, and photograph. Although the minimum age for anyone posting on the site is 16, there is no reliable way to ensure that younger children aren't creating a MySpace page as well. 18-year-old Riley Richardson says that's risky. "People are opening themselves up to such dangers as being stalked or...anything. But, it's peoples' choices."
Unfortunately, some of those "people" are actually young children. According to Jim Teicher, of the CyberSmart Education Company, the best thing parents can do is get on-line themselves. "Search blog sites, like MySpace, that your child may be visiting... may have their own web presence. Do a Google search on your child," he recommends. "Ask, talk to your child, particularly about posting any information on there about themselves, and [make sure] that they do it in a way that someone else could not actually find where they physically are. And the same with a photo. Because once this information is out there, it's gone for good."
In the final analysis, he notes, initiatives like Nebraska's Internet Safety Month can be successful only if teachers and parents carry its message through the other months of the year.