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Rockefeller hosts roundtable on how to protect children online

January 13, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com
  • U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller hosted a roundtable discussion about online safety for children on Thursday at Washington High School in Charles Town, W.Va.
By Yvette May, Staff Photographer

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — About 20 parents, teachers, librarians, children's services and police professionals along with a Facebook employee attended a roundtable discussion with U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller Thursday on protecting children from Internet predators and bullies.

They talked a lot and came up with ideas but no real solutions.

Prompting the discussion at Washington High School was a report last year of an Eastern Panhandle middle school student who Rockefeller said committed suicide after being cyberbullied on the Internet.

"This is huge," said Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "The Internet can destroy a young person's life."

He said he has been holding similar roundtables around the state about the dangers to children being on the Internet, Facebook and other social networking Web sites and wireless communication devices.

It has "created an explosion of information that anyone can charge into. Children think there's nothing wrong with putting themselves and their photos on Facebook," he said.

Terrorism like the Sept. 11 attacks is not as big a threat to national security as the Internet, Rockefeller said. A cyber attack can shut down anything.

"A smart 15-year-old kid can shut down a (public) water system or a grid system. It can become a lethal instrument. It can shut down the nation. You don't have to take down two big buildings to scare America."

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Rockefeller asked Tim Sparapani, director of public policy for Facebook, who monitors what children are doing and saying on the site.


Sparapani said Facebook's best intentions to protect children from predators fall short. One thing the social networking system does it is to rely on its own subscribers to police the system.

"They send us reports on underage use (children have to be 13 to subscribe) or inappropriate activity. Any criminal activity is reported to the police immediately," he said.

Several panelists agreed that Facebook is not capable of policing itself enough to protect children.

"We're not there yet," Sparapani said. "The movement from PCs to mobile devices is a real problem."

Cyberbullying can take many forms, according to a Cox Communications survey provided by Rockefeller's office. About a third of all teens who use the Internet said they have been victims of harassment. Examples cited include receiving threatening messages, forwarding private messages, posting embarrassing photos without permission and spreading damaging rumors.

Cyberbullying can go on at all hours, in school or at home. Extreme cases can lead to teen suicide, according to the Cox report.

The report said 39 percent of youths who frequent networking sites like Facebook say they have been bullied, compared to 22 percent who do not use social networking sites. Teenage girls are particularly at risk.

Leanne Smith, a Washington High School business education teacher, said teachers need to start with parents.

"Children 11- and 12-years-old are on Facebook illegally with their parents permission. It's an ethical problem. Parents are allowing their children to lie. There's no reason why an 11- or 12-year-old needs to be on Facebook," she said.

"It's socially inappropriate. Some children don't even have a Facebook account that's linked to their parents. The lack of parental knowledge is a big problem. That's the world we're in," she said.

A free federal government toolkit to help teachers and parents talk to children about being online is widely available in schools and libraries. The information is on a CD, a DVD and a booklet.

Log onto OnGuardOnline.gov for more information.

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