Celebrity Cyber-Lawyer: Dangers Of Web Socializing Abound

Newtown Bee By John Voket


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There is probably no better way for a student to learn about Australia than to hook up with a fellow student from Down Under to get the information first-hand through an Internet-based social networking site. But internationally known cyber-safety expert Parry Aftab warned parents and educators Tuesday, that “online, a 47-year-old [child molester] looks just like a 13-year-old from Australia.”

This was just one of the many interesting and vital points Ms Aftab made amid regaling more than 200 in attendance with anecdotes and promotion of her personally endorsed safe social networking site during the final Newtown Parent Connection forum of the year.

Although typical conversations and interactions between adolescents and teens on the web, in chat rooms, during instant messaging, and cell phone conversation may be nugatory for the most part, Ms Aftab stressed that any time parents consider providing electronic access to children, they need to mind the “three Cs.”

“Contact, content, commercialism…,” Ms Aftab belted out animatedly. “Any time you pick up a new piece of technology, hear about a new website, anytime you are going to plunk down your money, you are gonna ask three questions or spend your money someplace else.”

Content is related to seeing or sharing information.

“Can they share photos, can they see porn, can they download music or movies or porn, can they put out information about themselves, information they can see, read, watch?” she challenged.

If there is content involved, Ms Aftab advised that any technological item, software, or equipment should be controllable by parents so they can control, block, or turn off content.

The second “C” is contact.

“Can my kids talk to each other, whether their voice is over the Internet or through headsets. Can people talk to my kids? If so, how can I control it or turn it off?”

The third “C” is commercialism.

“Will it cost me money? Not the money I’m spending today, but can they give out my credit card or my tax information?” she asked. “Go to ‘Kazaa’ and type in ‘tax return’ and see how many files show up that were sitting on somebody’s computer that their kid shared by accident.”

The most important tool parents have to protect their children is information. Ms Aftab encouraged attendees at the forum to ask questions about everything children use, before they have at it.

For the majority of the talk, Ms Aftab kept coming back to social networking sites including, but not nearly limited to, MySpace.com. She discussed several instances, accurately articulating the text-based back and forth that occurred between a Connecticut teenager and a 47-year-old investment banker pretending to be a 23-year-old football player and art enthusiast from California that she met online in a social networking site.

The predator ended up luring the local girl into his hotel room while she was attending a swim meet in Dallas. The story did not end in tragedy fortunately, but Ms Aftab explained how dangerous the eventual encounters can turn after months of socializing and intimate conversations between adolescents and teens and those looking to exploit them, even when they are meeting the predator in a public place.

“I called a forensic psychologist. They have a disconnect because up here he’s still 16,” she said pointing to her forehead. “We’ve got to teach our kids to protect themselves, I’ve got to teach you to be empowered.”

The attorney pointed out how the incessant dialogues among tweens and teens can lead to inadvertently exposing unsuspecting, and even the most protective or savvy, families to danger. She detailed how one message on a social networking site indicated one teen was going to be with a friend for several hours, but if someone needed to reach her, to call her on her friend’s cell phone.

“Now everyone in the world has access to the friend’s cell phone number,” Ms Aftab exclaimed. “The losers can now call up the friend directly on her own cell phone.”

A mother in the audience, who did not identify herself, related an experience where she was randomly monitoring her daughter’s correspondence on the web, and after running her child’s name through a particular social networking search, she found a photo of her daughter posing in a bikini on a completely unrelated site.

“Click around,” she advised. “Maybe your kids are very good about not sharing information, but their best friend or next door neighbor, without meaning to, has posted your kid’s picture on her page saying, ‘This is my best friend, we live right next to each other, I live at 473 Wilson Avenue on the same side of the street.’ I need you not to panic – I need you thinking we’re all partners in all of this,” she said.

Ms Aftab noted that in recent months, employers as well as colleges are more frequently “Googling” and running student and job prospects names through social networking searches, and the results can often have life-changing consequences. And too often, when a job or academic opportunity is denied, no one ever stops to think it might be because one’s daughter may be jokingly referring to herself as a “drunken slut” on a social networking site to impress her friends.

The attorney, on the other hand, advocated for adolescents and teens to consider removing their personal information and web pages from sites that can be accessed by predators, and moving their information to highly policed and protected sites. She advised parents check out her own nonprofit organizations site, WiredSafety.org, for a wealth of information and advice on how to protect their children without denying them access and freedoms they may be fully entitled to.

Ms Afteb also advocated for two organizations, Teenangels and Tweenangels, she suggested would help young people in their future educational and employment pursuits. According to the organization’s website, Teenangels is a group of 13- to 18-year-old volunteers who have been specially trained by the local law enforcement and many other leading safety experts in all aspects of online safety, privacy, and security.

After training for six sessions, the Teenangels run unique programs in schools to spread the word about responsible and safe surfing to other teens and younger kids, parents, and teachers. At the urging of Teenangel volunteers, a special group of volunteers will be able to continue as Teenangels after they become 18 years old, and a new group of Tweenangels has been formed for those between 11 and 13 years of age.

Before closing the session, Ms Aftab announced a key collaboration with Marvel, which provided free licensing of dozens of its characters to WiredSafety.org so the cause could produce comic books espousing Internet and other related safety and self-protection practices.

For more information about Parry Aftab, visit Aftab.com, or check out her book, A Parent’s Guide to the Internet. To learn more about her nonprofit partnerships, visit WiredSafety.org, WiredKids.org, InternetSuperHeroes.org, or Teenangels.org. Used with permission Copyright © 1999-2004 Bee Publishing Company