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The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Wednesday, June 26 2019 @ 06:10 AM EDT
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Wednesday, June 26 2019 @ 06:10 AM EDT
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine

Parents on the look out for space invaders

When it comes to his teenager using the Internet, Rand Levin is taking charge. He's heard all the stories about sexual predators targeting teens who flock to a site called MySpace. And even the wildly popular site started running warnings to make young users more aware of potential dangers, Levin's not leaving his child's online safety up to anyone else.
"I work in TV news," Levin says. "I've become particularly sensitive to what's out there. I learned most of what I know about the dangers of MySpace through my work."

So Levin, who lives in San Diego, is keeping an eye on his 14-year-old son Josh's Internet activity. And Josh had to agree to certain rules.

"You don't accept people (as MySpace 'friends') that you do not know personally," Josh says.

And Levin has Josh's MySpace password so he could go and see what Josh is doing on the site.

"I feel it's pretty fair," Josh says, ever so reluctantly.

More parents may be taking Levin's tack now, given the continuing focus in recent weeks about online predators' activity on MySpace, in some cases leading to arrests. Recently, a Hollywood teenager was arrested at his high school and booked into jail, police said, on suspicion of one count of child molestation by force involving a 13-year-old girl he contacted through MySpace.

Police said Luis Alvarado, 19, drove to Oceanside, Calif., in mid-March after he and the girl had several conversations and agreed to meet.

Also recently, five teenage boys in Riverton, Kan., accused of plotting a shooting rampage at their high school on the Columbine massacre anniversary, were arrested after a message authorities said warned of a gun attack appeared on MySpace.

The crimes are rare for now, but experts fear, if parents aren't more vigilant, things could get worse. Much worse.

Part of the problem, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Laura Gunn says, is that, unlike Levin, many parents just aren't paying enough attention to what their kids are doing on the Web.

The truth is, if you have a teenager and the Internet in your home, you probably have MySpace, too. Or it could be Facebook, or Friendster or LiveJournal or Xanga.

"There's really no excuse for not getting to know this stuff anymore," Gunn said during a recent Internet safety workshop at Soille San Diego Hebrew Day School.

Levin and his son were among those who attended the workshop. The program was free - for parents and teenagers - organized to educate them about the potential dangers of unsupervised use of sites like MySpace.

So what is MySpace? Like Facebook and Friendster, it's a social network, a place where people connect on the Web to chat, see and be seen, even drum up a large base of support for anything from a new music video to a political candidate or cause. MySpace proved a valuable tool, for example, for some Hispanic young people to organize recent protests regarding the nation's immigration policies.

This virtual world is heavily populated by high school and college students, and more than a few middle-schoolers who say they are the minimum age allowed on the sites just to join the party.

And that, really, is the draw, says Catherine Butler, marriage and family counselor in east San Diego County, who says MySpace comes up in conversation with many of the families she serves in her private practice.

"I think it's just this desire to express themselves to their peers," Butler says. "They want to be accepted, be cool."

Nothing much has changed when it comes to teenagers, she says, just the venue. Hanging out at the malt shop, on the phone, in the mall, has been replaced by hanging out online.

"It's thrilling to log on and be connected to the whole world," Gunn says of the high young users get seeing who has visited their site, left messages, invited them to join their "friends list."

"Teenagers are narcissistic," Butler says. "They have a deep-seated desire to be socially acceptable. There's a lot of elation when kids feel they're part of the crowd. And all this is happening anonymously, behind a screen and a keyboard. Online, they are appreciated, admired, flirted with - If your life isn't so good, somewhere online it's better."

And that's what makes them vulnerable online.

"Privacy on the Internet?" Butler says, laughing. "That's an oxymoron."

Beth Givens, founder and director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, based in San Diego, made that very clear at the workshop. Among the nonprofit organization's goals is to raise consumers' awareness of how technology affects personal privacy.

"These are public spaces," she said. "More and more employers are looking at these sites, Googling the names of potential hires."

Even law enforcement and colleges are responding to pictures posted by MySpace member showing sexual activity, underage drinking and more. And who's to say that college admissions officers aren't doing the same?

But teenagers often don't get that or don't think much about it. While they still go through the same stages teenagers always have, their world is light years away even from what Butler remembers of that time in her life.

"I had one phone in my house," she said, chuckling. "I ruined four cords, pulling them around the corner so I could talk privately."

Now, parents often don't know when their kids are on the computer and certainly can't hear what they're "talking" about.

"It's quiet and parents are having a peaceful evening, but what's going on?" Butler asked.

That's especially true, she says, when computers are in children's bedrooms and not out in public spaces in the home.

"I cannot tell you how many times I've asked parents of middle-schoolers, 'Where's your computer?'

"In a week, I have 20 cases that come in the door and I hear about MySpace about a dozen times," she says. "It's a common denominator for most of the kid- and family-related issues. The kids are completely focused on MySpace. Most parents are oblivious. Basically, I have to coach their parents how to unplug the darn computer."

Butler says the parents who do threaten to do that will likely hear from their kids that they need the computer to do homework. And the parents often back down.

"I don't know why parents are so afraid to take charge. If your child were standing in front of you, swigging from a bottle of alcohol, would you just let it happen?"

The same is true for the potentially intoxicating nature of the Net.

"You're still the parent," Gunn said at the Internet safety workshop. As a member of the San Diego Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, she knows how easy it is for things to go wrong, especially, she said, given that San Diego is No. 1 in the nation for time spent online and the second most-wired city in the country. "Make reasonable rules. Very few parents set rules for computer use."

Worse, Butler says, parents enable their teens and preteens.

"This is the age of entitlement," she says of their mindset. "They want more things and we often provide gifts that put them in danger, like a laptop."

Furthermore, she says, be aware that "kids often have two pages on MySpace, one for their parents to see and one for their friends to see."

All of this is reason enough for David Wollner to prohibit his three children - girls, 13 and 14, and a boy, 11 - from having MySpace memberships.

"I'm not happy with their privacy policy," he says of the site.

Wollner is not just an attentive parent, he's a computer programmer. He acknowledges that his high-tech background makes him even more vigilant.

"I talk to them honestly about the Internet," he says. "I don't check their computers, but I tell them I know how."

That's probably enough, he says, to keep them in line.

Rand Levin takes a similar approach with his son Josh.

"I want him to know that anything he does, I can see," Levin says.

Josh, 14, is the oldest of four boys, and his father is setting the tone now for all of them.

Levin says, "Once upon a time, when we were naive, the computer was in the office, which is our fourth bedroom. My wife, Nomie, said, 'Let's get this thing out in the family room.' She was right on target."

Levin is not one to rely on MySpace to watch out for his son. He considers that his responsibility. But there are other parents - and teenagers - who can benefit from the new MySpace public service campaign. The warnings went up recently and appear across the top of the various areas on the site:

"One in five kids online is sexually solicited.

"Online predators know what they're doing.

"Do you?

"Visit cybertipline.com to learn more."

The public service announcements are sponsored by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Ad Council.

And MySpace didn't stop there. The company also announced the hiring of Hemanshu Nigam, a Microsoft executive and former federal prosecutor of online child exploitation cases to, among other things, oversee safety on the site.

It's a good step, but Butler says nothing can replace parental vigilance and common sense in teenagers. She has reminded them that, just because they have private profiles, that doesn't mean their friends can't sit down with other friends - people your children may not even know - to look at photos featuring revealing clothes, or personal information that tells people where a child goes to school, or works, or lives.

"Absolutely," Butler says. "There's always people with people."

She urges parents to consider computer use in the same way they considered letting their children cross the street alone, or ride a bike in the neighborhood, or drive a car alone. She says those are all things that parents monitor, making sure their children can handle the responsibility before letting them go on their own.

That's certainly Josh's parents' attitude.

"Get to know the Web sites your kids are visiting," Beth Givens urged at the Internet safety workshop. "Read the privacy policies. Sign up yourself so you can get more information on how the site operates."

Still, Butler notes that it's not just the potential danger involved.

While there have been a few highly publicized cases where kids have become victims of crimes after agreeing to face-to-face meetings with people they befriended on the 'Net, more common, says Butler, are the kids who are spending countless hours online to the detriment of their school work, their family and flesh-and-blood friends.

"If they're not busy in real life with normal interaction, human interaction," Butler says, it's a problem.

"My feeling is, everything in balance, everything in moderation," she says. "If they would prefer to be online rather than sign up for a club or a sport, somebody needs to be shifting their focus."

In San Diego, the problem is compounded by how spread out kids are, often attending schools outside their neighborhood.

"Geographically, they're often separated from their friends, they don't hang out with kids in the neighborhood," Butler says. "Parents don't know their friends' parents. And even those who say, 'You can't go over there because I don't know the family,' but then have no problem letting their kids talk online to those same kids."

And to "friends" who may be complete strangers.

"I see their social lives becoming riskier, more determined to be accepted," Butler says, "and the habits laid down now will go with them into adulthood. I don't see any end to this.

"Parents need to get in charge and stay there."

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