Teens Help Teens Stay Safe Online

<p>Tamekia Reece</p>
March 20, 2006


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Spider-Man is part of TeenAngels' safety campaign.

Websites like MySpace, Xanga, and Facebook have become extremely popular in the past few months. Teenagers are flocking to these social networking sites. Meanwhile, numerous national and local news stories have alerted parents and caregivers to the dangers posed by technologies that allow kids to be connected around the clock to friends and strangers, via computers and feature-laden cell phones.

Just one example: on March 7, 2006, a 48-year-old California man was arrested after he went to meet a 15-year-old girl he'd met on MySpace.com. In this case, the trickster was tricked himself: the "girl" turned out to be five teenage boys posing as a girl to cheer up a friend who'd recently broken up with his girlfriend. Upon his arrest, the man admitted he'd planned to have sex with the girl.

According to a 2005 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, about 87% of youth ages 12 through 17 use the Internet. With that level of usage comes an increasing risk of cyberbullying, online stalking, and becoming the target of online predators. Sites like MySpace and so-called diary sites present a particular set of dangers because members often include personal information about themselves such as full name, the school they attend, and where they plan to be at a specific time. They can also post photos.

Turning Teens into Teenangels

Although public awareness of the need for online safety education has increased recently, there's still more that needs to be done. Teenangels, a program for youth ages 13 to 18, is using the peer-to-peer approach to school others about online safety.

Created in 1999, Teenangels is the brain-child of Parry Aftab, an Internet safety lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, the world's largest online safety organization. During a television special on protecting children online, Parry says, "I realized the teens really had a different perspective on this and that they had a valuable voice."

Online Internet Safety Resources:

Isafe.org - A non-profit foundation for Internet safety education
YFly.com - A social networking site designed for teens only
• Aftab's site with superheroes teaching online safety
• FBI's site for kids in grades 6-12
• FBI's site for kids in Kindergarten—5th Grade

She invited a few teens to visit her New-Jersey-based law firm, where they were trained on Internet safety. "At the end of the summer I had mini-me experts," Aftab says. Teenangels was born and has since grown to include over 420 members, with chapters in the United States, Canada, and the UK.

Teenangels are volunteers who educate themselves, other teens, younger kids, and parents about online safety. During six sessions, the teens train with Aftab and law enforcement personnel. "They learn everything about what I call the four Ps," Aftab says. "Privacy, Predators, Pornography and other inappropriate content online, and Piracy."

Shannon, a 14-year-old Teenangel, says she got a big shock during the training. "One of the first activities we did was Google our name," she says. Information on her from a Girl's Scout program over three years ago came up. "It's amazing how something that happened a long time ago can be found so easily," she says.

After completing their training, the teens go into schools and give presentations to students about how to stay safe online. "That's the appeal of Teenangels," says 21-year-old Brittany, one of Teenangels original members, now teen director for the program. "Teenagers themselves are the ones that are going into the schools and educating kids, so it's a lot more effective because you get more information across," she says.

Corporate Angels

In addition to working with teens, children, and parents, the Teenangel members consult with companies and organizations like AOL, Disney, Microsoft, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and NetNanny. They also provided MySpace.com with safety tips for its users, and will soon do the same for Facebook. "I think that the technology itself isn't dangerous," Aftab says of social networking sites, "but if it's misused it is, and we need to start teaching our kids how to use these sites."

One way Teenangels is coming at kids is through comic books. They formed a partnership with Marvel Comics and now provide comic books with characters like Spider-Man and other superheroes using and protecting the Internet. "It's a really fun way of being able to bring this literature to children in a way they would enjoy and be able to understand," Brittany, the teen director, says.

Teens and Risk

Even though there are always stories about the dangers online, some teens think it doesn't apply to them. "A lot of teens think, "Oh, this'll never happen to me,'" says Shannon. "They think it's just their friends viewing their sites, but it's anybody."

Shannon's mom, Margaret, a computer teacher, says, "Kids don't seem to understand that people who they have not met previously offline should not be their friends online." That poses a risk, she says, because those "friends" may not be who they say they are.

One mom complained about her daughter's "disconnect" when discussing her online life. "She was furious when I went online and looked at her MySpace page," said the mom. "She told me 'That's private!' Then I pointed out that some 50-year-old guy in a basement in wherever could be looking at it anytime." The daughter eventually agreed to remove some photos from the site.

Many teens think they know all they need to know about staying safe on the Internet, but the fact is they don't. To get them to really learn, Aftab says everybody has to be on board.

The Urge to Unplug

With all the attention Internet dangers have received lately, some parents may think they should just ban their child from going online altogether. Aftab says that being denied access to the Internet could often be more harmful. "I've got a solution for everything else, but if we don't teach them how to use the Internet, they're not going to succeed in school, in their careers, and in life," she says. Aftab says education is the best defense.

And it needs to start with parents. "That entails visiting websites, reading books on Internet safety, and also learning from your kids and being open to the fact that kids probably know more about the Internet than you do," Brittany suggests.

Aftab says what's really needed is a way for parents to look at the issues and stay on top of them without having to memorize everything. She has a new program called Internet Safety 1-2-3 that'll help. "It's three steps," she says. One: "You take an inventory of the technologies you have and need for your children." Two: "We tell you what risks they present to you and the choices you can make." And, three: "You implement them."

Since social networking sites have gotten so popular, Mary Lou, a Teenangel chapter director, and mother of a 17-year-old Teenangel who was once cyberbullied, says parents should check out what their kids are putting on these sites. "Tell your kids, 'I really want to see your MySpace. I'm going to give you 24 hours until I look at it.'" That gives them time to clean it up, she says. Your goal isn't to catch them with something they shouldn't have online, but to make their page safe. "So give them 24 hours to make it safe," Mary Lou says.

Should you find your teen is posting identifiable information, or something inappropriate, try not to go bonkers. "Never overreact—because you don't want to dissuade your child from coming to talk to you when a problem does arise," Brittany says.

School of Safety

Aftab says Internet safety education shouldn't fall only on parents. "I don't think we as a community aren't doing enough to educate our children about online safety," she says. "I think we need to provide better training for teachers, library media specialists and librarians on ways they can educate the kids in school." After all, she says, "schools do education better than anyone else."

Mary Lou, who's also a computer teacher, feels it's her job to make sure her students are safe online. She does what she calls a "one-woman crusade." "I find kids at my school's MySpace page and look through it," she says. "If they have something that's identifiable, a suggestive picture, or kids holding a bottle of beer, I'll jot down their name and go talk to them." After she talks to the kid, she rechecks the page. So far everyone she's talked to has made changes.

According to Aftab, educators need some good tools and resources to better help educate their students about online safety. So she provides a free curriculum for teachers that allows kids to problem-solve while they learn Internet safety. The goal isn't to get kids to memorize safety tips, she says. "I want them to understand why they need to do things and why they need not." Until children get a full understanding of what online safety is and why it's important, little success will be achieved.

On the Side of the Angels

It's easy for teens, adults, and even educators to start a Teenangel chapter in their community or school. Teens need a letter of good-standing from their school and a signed parental consent form, which can be found at the Teenangels site. For parents and educators of younger kids, there's also a Tweenangels program for children ages 9 to 12. Both Teenangels and Tweenangels are free and available throughout the country. The goal, Aftab says, is to get people to think before they click.

Tamekia Reece is a freelance writer in Houston, Texas who specializes in health, relationships, and teen issues.


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This is a cool screen idea ! It is very interesting indeed.Thank you for your info.i love to read all info.

Great Article. I enjoyed and learned more. thanks

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Great piece - thank you, Connect for Kids. Teens have tech literacy and parents have life literacy, and we need each other&;s help more than ever! May I suggest some complementary Net-safety resources that might help parents concerned about teen blogging and social-networking? First, the brand-new <a href="http://www.blogsafety.com">BlogSafety.com</a> and companion forum for teens and parents. Second, a way for parents and educators to stay on top of the teen-tech scene, "<a href="http://netfamilynews.org">NetFamilyNews.org</a>: kid-tech news for parents," my nearly 9-year-old, nonprofit "community newspaper" for the tech-parenting community (free email newsletter, <a href="http://netfamilynews.org">NetFamilyNews.org</a>Web site</a>, <a href="http://netfamilynews.blogspot.com">blog</a>, <a href="http://netfamilynews.org/RSS.html">RSS feed</a>, and <a href="http://www.familytechtalk.com">podcast</a> with <a href="http://www.safekids.com">SafeKids.com</a>&;s Larry Magid at <a href="http://www.familytechtalk.com">FamilyTechTalk.com</a>). We filter all tech news for stories of interest to busy parents and educators.

Thanks for the kind words about our Teenangels program. The real thanks goes to these devoted and caring teens and preteens and our http://WiredSafety.org volunteers who run the program.

Anyone interested should drop by http://Teenangels.org and learn more about the program and how to get involved.

And for all your cybersafety needs, drop by http://WiredSafety.org, where our thousands of trained volunteers can help Internet and wireless users of all ages enjoy the technologies, safely. If you have time, think about joining and helping...we welcome more volunteers!

And if parents have any questions about social networking sites, like MySpace.com, Facebook.com or the others...or want to learn more about the safe teen-only network, http://www.YFly.com (check it out in this month&;s Teen People Magazine), or have a problem with cyberbullying, drop me an e-mail at askparry@wiredsafety.org, or visit http://WiredSafety.org and use our reportlines for one-to-one free help.

thanks again,
Parry Aftab
Executive Director
WiredSafety.org (Teenangels is a program of WiredSafety.org)

kids are safe online. they should have common sense to not talk to strangers or people they dont knowww.

im a teenager and ive never been threartened and i dont bully so yeah