School Climate & Safety

Governors Urged to Protect Children From Online Predators

By Michele McNeil — July 23, 2007 3 min read
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Experts on Internet crimes are urging the nation’s governors to more aggressively protect young people from sexual predators online.

“This is an issue we’re not going to arrest our way out of,” New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte told governors yesterday, during a session of the National Governors Association meeting here. The NGA’s annual summer meeting, held July 20-23, drew about 35 state chief executives, who also tackled innovation in education, the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and a host of other issues, such as global warming.

Better educating parents, children, and police about how to deal with the danger of online predators; incorporating online security into the school curriculum; and requiring sex offenders to register their e-mail addresses, in addition to their home addresses, with local law enforcement could help protect youngsters, authorities said here.

The cyber-crime issue is critical because roughly one in five children will be approached online by a sexual predator, according to the experts, who also included an Illinois Internet-crimes detective, the chief of security for MySpace, and Miss America 2007.

Miss America 2007, Lauren Nelson, speaks to the Education, Early Childhood and Workforce Committee at the 99th National Governors Association conference Sunday, July 22, 2007, in Traverse City, Mich. Speaking on the Internet and how to protect women of any age, Nelson has chosen the subject as her platform for her year as Miss America.

The fast-growing social-networking site MySpace has come under increasing pressure from states and law enforcement to improve security, boot known sex offenders from the site, and keep those under age 14 from logging in.

Ms. Ayotte was one of eight state attorneys general who asked MySpace in a joint May 14 letter to turn over a list of known sex offenders who have profiles on the site. MySpace complied with the request.

While it’s not a crime for sex offenders to have profiles on such sites, such a presence may violate the terms of their probations, which often limit offenders’ contact with children or computers. Every day, MySpace officials say, 300,000 new users register on the site, with enrollment surpassing 100 million users.

Such Internet gathering sites, whether MySpace, Facebook, or Xanga, allow people to find new friends, interact, and share pictures and video. But they’re also “a playground for predators,” said Lauren Nelson, Miss America 2007, who has made protecting children online a major part of her national platform.

In the past year, MySpace has added 75 new safety features—from requiring a valid e-mail address to register to shielding the profiles of 14- and 15-year-old users from public view. But the security effort is far from over, said Hemanshu Nigam, the chief security officer for MySpace.com and a former federal prosecutor against Internet child exploitation.

“This is an ongoing battle,” he said.

‘Where the Kids Are’

But enhancing security at MySpace alone won’t curb the problem, said Richard Wistocki, an Internet-crimes investigator with the Naperville, Ill., police department.

“The predators will go to where the kids are,” he said.

Students are increasingly turning to other Web sites, too, from the alternative-reality teen.secondlife.com (which allows users to create digital alter egos and interact in cyberspace) to www.clubpenguin.com, which encourages youngsters to “waddle around and meet new friends.”

Young people are also relying more on text messaging over their cellphones, which doesn’t leave nearly the electronic trail that Internet surfing and e-mailing do, Mr. Wistocki said.

So education is key, experts told the governors. The panelists urged other states to follow the lead of Virginia, which has required that online safety be incorporated into the K-12 curriculum. Parents must be urged—through efforts such as public-service announcements or Internet classes—to talk to their children about online dangers, panelists said, just as they talk to them about the dangers of the physical world, such as getting into a car with a stranger.

Mr. Nigam of MySpace called for more states to follow 10 others and require registered sex offenders to log their e-mail addresses with local law enforcement so officials know how they’re identifying themselves online. In addition, he said, states should pass laws making it a crime to lie about one’s age online with the intent to solicit a minor.

Ms. Ayotte, the New Hampshire attorney general, plans to pursue many of those proposals in the next legislative session. She has the support of New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, who said: “I believe this problem is only going to become greater.”

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