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No Small Towns Online

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
October 8, 2006

No Small Towns Online

“My parents don’t have a clue. They think I only have the AOL account.”

I was sitting in a College of the Sequoias classroom, where I was taking a Spanish class. During the afternoons, I was teaching English at Fresno State, but in the mornings I was just another student at COS.

From my place in a hard plastic seat, I was learning a lot.

This student with a laptop was updating his MySpace profile. Actually, he was creating a new profile after his parents had located his previous online profile. His parents had located his old profile because he had used his American Online e-mail address. After seeing a news broadcast, his parents decided to check on their son.

“Now, I use one of my Gmail accounts or Hotmail when I create a profile. We all know to use nicks, too.”

By obtaining numerous free e-mail accounts and using nicknames online, students of all ages are hiding from their parents.

I’m sure this young man’s parents meant well when they searched for him online. You can certainly learn a lot when you search MySpace, Yahoo 360, or Facebook to see what young people are doing. News reports have also reminded us that a mix of pedophiles, predators, and general miscreants also skim these “social networks” looking for victims of all ages.

Because students know parents, teachers, and coaches are checking up on them, the students are racing ahead of us. As this young man reminded me, it is easy to setup a free e-mail account on Yahoo, Google, Microsoft’s Hotmail, and several other popular Web sites. You can create as many identities and profiles as you want. Even some cell phone providers allow you to create multiple e-mail identities.

These companies are aware of how students use e-mail and profiles, but there is little these services can do to check who signs up for a free mailbox. MySpace, Yahoo, and Microsoft ask users to “verify” their ages. “I certify that I am 18 or have parent permission” is not much of a safety check.

No matter how many primetime news programs expose the risks, teens and preteens seem intent on attracting attention to themselves. Posting racy photos, writing innuendo-laced messages, and joining “groups” or “clubs” with names that shouldn’t appear in print, are all part of the online culture of this generation. What a teen might think is funny or harmlessly daring is an invitation to trouble.

This semester, I’m teaching a course on professional settings at a university. I’ve tried to get 18 to 22-year-old students to consider what their online profiles tell the world. The young women admit to getting hundreds of unsolicited e-mails and chat requests. When I ask if being a member of “California Cyber Sluts” might be the problem, they can’t always make the connection. (Believe it or not, I’ve edited the group name to be somewhat less offensive.)

“Why would anyone take that seriously?” a student asked.

Parents should definitely take the question seriously.

I admit, predators exist in every community regardless of size or location. Even the people in professions we once trusted most are under suspicion. But the Internet has made it easy for predators to search through virtual communities of millions for victims.

When we only had to deal with physical places, knowing where your child was sufficed. Even when online chatting and text messages first exploded onto the scene, you could set limits.

What can you do when libraries and classrooms offer online access? How can you stop a teenager who wants to create a private Gmail or Yahoo mail account? There are no foolproof barriers, and using the ones that do exist might only make it a more interesting challenge for a teenager.

You might think your child doesn’t have an online profile you don’t know about. In fact, some places are nearly impossible for parents to monitor but employers and universities have access. Facebook is extremely popular with students, gaining on MySpace with giveaways like free music from iTunes. The catch is that students can lock “networks” to include only people from their school or university.

Unless you have an e-mail address issued by Fresno State, you cannot join the Facebook network dedicated to students of the university. What students forget is that some alumni also have Fresno State accounts, as do current graduate students of all ages. So, while you might not be able to see your child’s college exploits, a local employer might see too much.

I’m not about to equate how a potential employer might react to a threat to a teen’s security. But photos posted in high school and available online through college could seriously damage a potential career.

What is more worrisome is that some miscreants are paying students with accounts on Facebook and MySpace to search for revealing pictures. This means that compromising pictures of young men and women might be hidden away from parents… but those same images aren’t hidden from the worst among us. Worse, many of the pictures and posts being “reposted” on the Internet include information about when and where pictures were taken.

The only real protection we can offer our children is sound advice. Let’s hope they listen.

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