One of the first lessons parents teach their toddlers is: "Don't talk to strangers." It's time to repeat that mantra, but this time it's teenagers who need to be reminded about the strangers and dangers lurking in cyberspace.
The latest results from a study on risky Internet behavior by teens show things are improving, but there is still a long way to go -- 69 percent of teens say they regularly get online messages from people they don't know.
Laura Redfern, 18, a recent graduate of Green Valley High School, said awareness and education are the keys to preventing incidents of online predators harming unsuspecting teens. "The first problem is that parents are not aware of what their teens are doing on the Internet," Redfern said. "Pre-teens are even a more serious target. Thirteen-year-olds now know more so much more about the Internet than I did at that age. They want to model what the 17- and 18-year-olds are doing."
Redfern attended the recent Teen Summit on Internet Safety in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, where she met with reigning Miss America Lauren Nelson, who was stalked online as a teenager.
"When she (Nelson) was 13, she and some friends were in a chat room where a man found out her age, location and that she was a female," Redfern said. "That was seven years ago, and some men started harassing her. Nelson said she worked on sting operations and has been a decoy."
She said 11 men were arrested, including one police officer, and charged with being online predators.
"When Nelson told her story it really put us in the mind-set of what we are advocating for," Redfern said. "We are promoting responsible Internet usage."
Redfern has a presentation on the results of the Internet safety survey and is ready to take it to the people who most need to see it -- parents. She said she is working with the youth minister at her church -- St. Thomas More in Henderson -- to present it to groups of parents and host Internet safety discussions in the near future.
Redfern also believes sixth-graders should be taught more about cyberdangers during their mandatory computer class. "I would recommend a one-week tutorial on Internet safety. The sixth-graders could share their stories and anecdotes and teachers could help put them in perspective.
"When you go on the Internet, you're not aware there's an immediate danger. When someone says to 'be careful' when you're on the Net, you aren't sure what they are talking about. With drugs, you know immediately what the dangers are."
Learn more about the Internet Teen Summit at www.safeteensonline.com.
Share your Internet story with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.