Question of the Week

May 20 2008


More and more, teens and tweens are using cell phone and internet technology as their primary means of communication. While sending a text to a friend from school can be harmless, sending a text, IM, or email to someone met online can be questionable.

"Jasmine was horrified to discover her nine-year-old daughter had been messaging strangers. ... 'They were telling her she was beautiful, although they didn't have a photo of her. They said she should come to their house.' ... Jasmine's daughter had also filled in a 'questionnaire' sent by one of a few suspect e-mailers. It asked for all sorts of personal details - which she had given - including her home address and phone number, as well as asking fun things such as her favourite games, TV programmes and characters. Jasmine's daughter is one of the many children getting online at a younger and younger age. Computer use is widespread. Four in 10 children aged between eight and 11 regularly use the internet according to Ofcom and even very young children have PCs or laptops in their bedrooms (not something recommended by child protection experts). Jasmine is not sure how the suspect people first made contact. Some her daughter had mistakenly believed were friends of friends."

It used to just be a concern for teens, and some tweens, who would meet people online, become "friends" and decide to MIRL (meet in real life). There were reports of teens who were abducted or ran away to meet people they had met online and were later found dead or not found at all.

Since it's easy to pretend to be something you're not online, adults can pretend to be kids or teens in the attempt to gain trust and information.

"According to the UK police organisation, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), offenders will typically make contact in a chat area and then try to get a child into an e-mail or other one-on-one arena. Another parent, Kate, was immediately suspicious when she read messages from her 10-year-old daughter's new online friend. ... The messaging had gone on for a couple of weeks before Kate noticed what was going on. Her daughter had just got into instant messaging and playing on children's gaming sites. ... Jo Bryce, from the Cyberspace Research Unit at the University of Central Lancashire, says while older children are most likely to be victims of so-called online 'grooming' - where children are befriended by people with the intention of abusing them - younger ones are also at risk. 'Offenders use cunning to identify vulnerable children, pretend to like the things they like and try to win their trust over time,' she said. 'Typically, someone looking for a victim will lurk in a chat area used by children and watch the interactions and get access to people they are interested in. 'They might see someone who is open to making friends. They are quite good at working out who looks vulnerable or lonely. It's a case of "horrible genius". Children who write "mum and dad are arguing" or "my best friend has dumped me" could be targeted. They can appear as a sympathetic ear, the only one who understands the child.'"

Whether it's filling out a "questionnaire" or a "friend survey" that a person and their online friend both fill out so they can be better friends, it is never a good idea to share TMI (too much information).

"First rule of smart surfing? Remain as anonymous as possible. That means keeping all private information private. Here are some examples of private information that you should never give out on the Internet:
      • full name
      • home address
      • phone number
      • Social Security number
      • passwords
      • names of family members
      • credit card numbers
Most credible people and companies will never ask for this type of information online. So if someone does, it's a red flag that they may be up to no good."

Even telling someone the name of a school, sports team, or place of work can be a way that an online stranger posing as a friend can find a new target.

"Experts recommend that people keep online friendships in the virtual world. Meeting online friends face to face carries more risks than other types of friendships because it's so easy for people to pretend to be something they're not when you can't see them or talk in person. If you ever get involved in a chat room conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable or in danger for any reason, exit and tell a parent or other adult right away so they can report the incident. You can also report it to the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at — they have a form for reporting this type of incident called CyberTipline. They will then see that the info is forwarded to law enforcement officials for investigation."

Younger and younger children are meeting strangers online in chat rooms and on gaming sites aimed at kids. There may be teens who see this as a problem for kids--since they know better than to tell a stranger anything about themselves. That said, teens, tweens, and anyone else with a MySpace or Facebook account can often be sharing too much information with anyone who wants it.

"TMI!! How much information is too much information? This is a page Dateline staffers created to illustrate what a MySpace profile could look like and the kinds of personal information users post. Put your mouse over each highlight to see why this information might be potentially dangerous."

Even if access is limited to "friends," if a person lets in friends of friends, or anyone they don't actually know face to face, they could be sharing personal information with adults (or other teens) who are out to seek information that they can use for their own personal gain--even if their gain might end up hurting someone else.

"A Missouri woman was indicted Thursday for her alleged role in perpetrating a hoax on the online social network MySpace against a 13-year-old neighbor who committed suicide. Lori Drew ... allegedly helped create a MySpace account in the name of someone who didn't exist to convince Megan Meier she was chatting with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans... The indictment says MySpace members agree to abide by terms of service that include, among other things, not promoting information they know to be false or misleading; soliciting personal information from anyone under age 18 and not using information gathered from the Web site to 'harass, abuse or harm other people.' ... It alleges they registered as a MySpace member under a phony name and used the account to obtain information on the girl. Drew and her coconspirators 'used the information obtained over the MySpace computer system to torment, harass, humiliate, and embarrass the juvenile MySpace member,' the indictment charged. ... They used 'Josh' to flirt with Megan ... Around Oct. 7, 2006, Megan was told 'Josh' was moving away ... But on or about Oct. 16, 'Josh' wrote to the girl and told her 'in substance, that the world would be a better place without M.T.M. in it,' according to the indictment. The girl hanged herself the same day, and Drew and the others deleted the information in the account, the indictment said.",CST-NWS-my16.article

Anyone a person knows solely from the internet may or may not be who they seem. Unfortunately, posting fake pictures and pretending to be someone else is all too easy.

Even if access is limited to real life friends and classmates, information posted on a personal site should never be something that it wouldn't be okay for anyone to read: parents, teachers, strangers, future employers, or even that kid in second period who is always bugging you. You may think you know who is accessing your site, but you don't know who's reading over their shoulder, and you don't know what they are going to do with the information they get.

"Online bullying, called cyberbullying, happens when teens use the Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person. Cyberbullying is a problem that affects almost half of all American teens. Whether you've been a victim of cyberbullying, know someone who has been cyberbullied, or have even cyberbullied yourself, there are steps you and your friends can take to stop cyberbullying and stay cyber-safe."

Questions of the Week:
Is it possible to know for sure who you are talking to online if you have never met in person? How easy is it to spread fake information online? Why isn't it safe to meet someone in person that you have first met online? Why do you think one of the rules of MySpace people agree to when they use it includes "not promoting information they know to be false or misleading"? How many people do you think are aware that they could lose their MySpace accounts if they use them to share information that isn't true? How can you keep yourself safe online? What do you think your friends and peers need to know about online safety? What do you think younger children need to know (younger brothers or sisters, cousins, your friends' siblings)? What do you think would be the best way to share this information in a way that they would listen and it would help them make safe choices?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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