On a screen at the front of a classroom, Gene Fishel flashed an online social-networking profile of “hotlilflgirl”, which said she was 15, enjoyed being around boys and wanted to meet new people.
The next image revealed the real “hotlilflgirl”—a mug shot of a 31-year-old man who was convicted of sexually abusing 11 children he met online and was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
“Not little, not fly and not a girl,” said Fishel, a Virginia assistant attorney general. He warned his audience about the dangers of sharing personal information on the internet and agreeing to meet web acquaintances in person.
Fishel’s presentation at James River High School recently was one of many being held this school year in the American state, the first to mandate that public schools offer internet safety classes for all grade levels.
Nationally, Texas and Illinois are among states that have since passed their own internet safety education laws, but unlike Virginia they don’t make the courses mandatory.
Other states are considering similar legislation, said Judi Westberg Warren, president of Web Wise Kids, a non-profit group funded by the federal government and corporations such as Verizon and Symantec to provide schools with no-cost internet safety lessons for 11- to 16-year-olds.
Warren said such efforts are overdue as the internet’s technological advances have enabled criminals to reach more victims.
The FBI doesn’t specifically track the number of sexual-abuse cases that originate online, but a 2006 study by the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children found that about 13% of internet users ages 10 to 17 had received unwanted sexual solicitations. Four percent of those youths reported being asked for nude or sexually explicit photographs of themselves.
Tammy McGraw, director of the Virginia department of education’s office of educational technology, has worked with schools to integrate internet safety lessons into existing coursework.
Her office also helps schools educate parents, including encouraging families to use filtering software and put their computers in parts of the house where they can be easily seen.
“We’re all sensitive that many, many important things need to be addressed. This is absolutely essential,” McGraw said.
Under mounting pressure, the social-networking site MySpace agreed with 49 states to create a task force to devise ways to protect youngsters from online predators and bullies. Texas opted out because of concern that the program lacks a way to verify users’ ages.
At James River High School, Fishel also warned students about the permanence of what they put on the internet, and how information posted today can come back to haunt them when they’re applying to colleges or looking for jobs.
Some listened attentively; others slumped over their desks.
“I thought it was very important because we post a lot of things on the internet,” said freshman Maya Towers, who created a MySpace page in August. “I didn’t know how much information can be exposed.”
Others, like Kyle Rackley (16), still feel they’re bulletproof, that they won’t become an online predator’s victim. “I feel pretty safe about it,” Kyle said.
That feeling, Attorney General Bob McDonnell says, is precisely why young people are vulnerable.
No one wants to curb teens from using Facebook and MySpace, he said, but in the internet age, it’s necessary to reinforce the old warning: “Don’t talk to strangers.”—Sapa-AP
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