The Internet has undoubtedly changed the way we live our lives. It’s changed the way we learn, communicate and spend our time, especially for today’s youth. But there are risks out there, hiding behind the anonymity and ambiguity of the Internet. This past week, Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III visited young boys at Camp Barnes near Frankford, taking time to reiterate to them the importance of being safe when using the Internet.
“How many of you use the Internet at school or at home?” Biden asked a group of 60 10- to 13-year-old boys this Wednesday morning, during a summer camp program at Camp Barnes. Almost all of their hands shot up.
“Now, how many of you have Facebook or MySpace accounts?” Again, virtually every child raised a hand.
“And how many friends do you have on these accounts?” The numbers varied. “One-hundred,” “15,” “400,” “Like, a-thousand.”
“Fifteen’s a good number,” Biden explained. “That’s right on. The bottom line is: What’s a friend? You’re supposed to know your friends, right? You can’t possibly really know all 1,000 people on your friend list. Are they really your friends?
“A lot of people who use these social networks are sharing information and, by definition, talking to strangers or people you wouldn’t share personal information with if they tried to buy you an ice cream on the boardwalk.”
According to statistics from the Delaware Department of Justice, one in five children are solicited sexually online. One in five people who use the Internet have agreed to meet someone, face-to-face, whom they only know from the Web. Of all reported solicitations, 89 percent occur in chat rooms or instant messaging over the Internet.
“The Delaware Department of Justice is spending a considerable amount of time reinforcing to the kids how important it is to be safe when you’re on the internet,” Biden stated. “The first thing kids are taught by their parents is ‘Don’t talk to strangers.’ It’s like a golden rule. The first time they’re allowed to go to the playground or the boardwalk on their own – that’s what they’re told. I’ve spent a lot of time telling kids that it’s as important, if not more important, not to talk to people you don’t know online, and sometimes, they’re doing it, unwittingly.”
Social networks have proven to be a great outlet for college graduates, long-time friends or distant relatives to stay in touch, and for businesses, artists and companies to attract clients, customers and fans. But many users provide personal or private information that can be viewed by others, not just those they know.
Biden encouraged children – and everyone else – to be sure to understand the securities offered by these sites and consider the following tips for accounts on these sites:
• Don’t make public more information than you need, and be wary of who can access this information. Some sites allow just users’ friends to view their information, including e-mail addresses, home addresses or phone numbers.
• Think about how different sites work before deciding to join a site. Some sites may only allow a specific community to access an account while others may be public to anyone.
• Don’t trust messages that are sent from individuals you do not know.
• If you use a public computer to access your social networking account, be sure to sign out or log off when completed so others cannot access your information.
• Assume everything you put on a social networking site is permanently available there, and likely elsewhere.
• Be careful posting information about travels and vacations until after you return. Making public that you’ll be in Florida for a week with the family could leave an empty house vulnerable.
• Be wary of new friends wanting to meet in person. Not everyone on the Internet is necessarily who they say they are. Be sure you know your friends.
The anxiety isn’t just limited to these social networking sites. Online gaming on consoles, such as Wii, Playstation and XBox have brought video games into a new realm, but the concern is still prevalent, as players can interact and communicate easily with others, via the Internet.
“When playing video games with others [online],” said Biden, “sometimes, the people you’re competing against are not the 12-year-old boy they say they are. Be careful what you say and who you talk to, or instead, just play with a friend sitting there with you, or if it’s someone online, make sure it a friend from school.”
Biden’s presentation also touched on the growing concern of “sexting,” or sending inappropriately sexual photos in cell phone messages and e-mails, which has become a problem in middle- and high- schools across the country.
“We are reminding kids that texting is forever,” Biden said. “Just because you erase a text message or an e-mail, it doesn’t just go away. If you’re sending scantily clad pictures of a child, it can quickly become a criminal issue. You’re committing a crime.”
Cyber-bullying is another ongoing concern he addressed.
“Growing up,” he said, “bullying was at lunch or on the playground. Today, we’re seeing more on the ’Net.”
To date, the Delaware Department of Justice has brought information and awareness to more than 21,000 middle-school-age kids. While parents hold the responsibility to inform their children of the risks out there, Biden recognized that addressing the children, themselves, is a big step in the right direction.
“We have got to stay a step ahead,” he noted. “Kids are very reachable and retain a lot of what you say. We’re learning from the kids what they’re up to, and they’re telling us what’s going on on these social networking sites. They’re letting us know how they’re using this technology, and in turn, the kids can help educate their parents, too.”