Teens warned to be Web savvy
Although she may think no one knows her name, it's easy to find the real identity of the Lexington Trails Middle School student who writes on her Web blog about her breasts being too large.
On her Xanga site, the girl tells her innermost private thoughts -- which can be read by anyone with an Internet connection. And she's not the only one -- a blog "ring" of Xanga users shows there are 84 users in a group called "De Soto Peeps" and 81 users in another group called "De Soto Wildcats!" Some sites vary and are simply high school students communicating their ideas about classes and tests. Others talk openly of underage drinking, drugs and sexual activity.
Sgt. Mike Phannenstiel with the Johnson County Sheriff's Department said online predators are increasingly targeting kids' blog sites to find their next victim.
"Some of these kids put what they feel, and it's easy to exploit," he said. "If I'm a predator, I can easily see just how many kids are out there."
The sheriff's office has a full-time officer dedicated to fighting online exploitation of children. The officer poses as a child and catches sexual predators. Deputies recently made their eighth arrest of an online sexual predator since Jan. 2.
Phannenstiel said national statistics from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimate about 1 in 5 children online are targeted by sexual predators. Phannenstiel said he thought the statistics in Johnson County were much higher. Last year, he spoke to eighth-graders at LTMS and said many of them admitted to being approached by a stranger online. He said he's even found home phone numbers listed on some teens' sites.
"If you talk to kids, they don't tell their parents that someone has asked to meet them online," he said. "The reason for that is they're concerned 'My parents will take the internet away from me.'"
School officials are regularly involved in blocking sites like Xanga, Face Book, MySpace and any others that allow students to have online diaries or post personal information.
Lexington Trails principal Mark Schmidt, principal said members of the parent PAWS group has expressed so much concern about their children and online activity that they have decided to host a speaker from the Sheriff's department next month.
"Through e-mail and technology, kids sometimes feel a little more anonymous than what they really are," Schmidt said. "Sometimes, the parents aren't always aware."
Alvie Cater, director of communications, said the school's policy is that the sites are not related to instruction.
"That's something the students do on their own time," he said.
Cater said schools block sites through the Children's Internet Protection Act, which also governs library computers.
"We have a procedure in place," he said. "When a teacher or student stumbles across a Web site with questionable content but for some reason our filter didn't block, staff members can submit a Web site and we'll take a look at the content."
Last month, De Soto High School officials found out students were able to access a site called "Face Book.com" after reading about it in the student newspaper. The site allows students to share information with students from other schools. Now, Face Book has become another blocked site at DHS.
De Soto High School principal Dave Morford said the parents needed to be aware of what their children were doing on home computers.
"We've sent newsletters to parents about being cautious," he said. "You need to know where your students are getting online."
Schmidt said parents are sometimes unaware their children are posting information online or unaware of the nature of the information.
"Some of them knew their kids were online but didn't know exactly where their kids were going," he said. "They think that because their kids are home, they're safe."
Morford said students could lose computer privileges at school if caught on an inappropriate site.
Phannenstiel said it was difficult for parents, schools and the sheriff's office to keep up with all the new blog sites available to teens and children.
"We can only react to things that actually happened in the past," he said. "It's nice to be proactive. Last year when I talked to some of these kids I learned more about what to look for."
Phannenstiel will visit with LTMS parents at a PAWS meeting at 7 p.m. March 28 at the school.
Any parent with a child at LTMS is automatically a member of the group and there are no fees involved.
Phannenstiel had several tips for parents to keep track of their children's online activities. He said children should not have a computer in their room where they can access the Internet without adult supervision. If the child has a laptop, Phannenstiel said parents could go through the computer with their child to find out which sites they've been visiting online.
A variety of programs, such as Net Nanny, allow parents to trace online activity. Web sites such as www.blogsafety.com and netfamilynews.org can provide parents with the latest information about online safety.
Phannenstiel said the best way to find out about a child's activity online is to talk with them about the dangers and follow good parenting skills. He said he's learned more about Internet safety from talking to the students themselves.
"We talked to kids who were 12-, 13-years-old," he said. "They've been on the Internet since age 7. They're technically more advanced than what we were at that age. They have their own Web sites, and they were posting their pictures on there, all that information is out there for anyone who wants it."