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Web safety hits home

Andrea Robbins, 13, shows a photo of herself on her MySpace page at home in Hayden recently. Her mother has her password and checks the account regularly. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Andrea Robbins, 13, shows a photo of herself on her MySpace page at home in Hayden recently. Her mother has her password and checks the account regularly. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Kim Robbins thinks she has a pretty good handle on her children’s Internet usage.

Her 13-year-old daughter, Andrea, uses the Internet frequently to chat with friends on her MySpace profile. The popularity of social networking sites like MySpace has soared in past years, and, like many families, the Robbinses are dealing with the challenge of allowing their daughter the freedom to use them without exposing her to some of the suspicious people who frequent them.

Robbins has the password to Andrea’s profile and checks it frequently, monitoring it for any new messages or contacts from strangers or shifty-seeming people.

What she saw when she checked it recently showed her just how much that monitoring is needed.

Andrea had changed her age in her MySpace profile to 18. Two 21-year-old men – strangers – had contacted her through the site, asking to be added to her list of friends.

“It surprised me. I think it surprised her, too,” Robbins said. “I was like, ‘Oops, don’t think so,’ and changed it.”

Robbins is among parents taking proactive steps to monitor what their children are doing online. As horror stories spring up across the nation about sexual predators luring victims through online chat rooms and social networking sites like MySpace, parents and school and state officials are not only looking at ways to teach kids about the dangers but also looking to verse themselves on the ways children use the Internet and how they communicate.

“It’s a continuous challenge to stay ahead of what’s happening out there,” said Jean Bengfort, director of technology for the Coeur d’Alene School District. Bengfort is working to add Internet safety into required curriculum next year at different grade levels.

The Idaho attorney general’s office has produced materials aimed at teaching young people about the dangers and helping parents be better monitors. Methods like the one Robbins uses – open communication and shared access to her daughter’s sites – are strongly encouraged.

One recent addition to the materials is an Internet lingo dictionary – 36 pages of acronyms used in Internet chatrooms, message boards and on sites like MySpace.

Examples range from the common – “LOL” means “laugh out loud” – to the obscure – “FAB” stands for “features/attributes/benefits” – to the bizarre – 7:^) symbolizes Ronald Reagan.

Robbins finds it helpful.

” ‘OMG’ is ‘oh, my God,’ but some of this stuff, especially when they get older and a little more savvy – to have this as your little dictionary, I think this is great,” Robbins said.

But some kids think it’s a little much.

“I’ve never even heard of some of these,” said Brandon Feely, an eighth-grader at Canfield Middle School, as he flipped through the pages.

Not many kids talk about Ronald Reagan online, and Feely and his friends couldn’t think of anyone who talks about the former president so much that they need their own symbol for him.

Feely has his own MySpace profile and said his older sisters, also MySpace users, check it regularly and report anything dangerous to his mother. But that doesn’t happen often, and Feely said he takes the basic precautions to protect himself from predators. He simply adjusts his privacy settings so that only those listed on his page as friends can view his profile.

“People just think it”s worse than it is,” Feely said. “If you want it to be private, you can turn it to private.”

But the privacy setting won’t stop strangers from requesting to be added as a friend, as was the case when Robbins’ daughter changed her age. Andrea’s profile is set to private, too.

Bob Cooper, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said there have been cases in Idaho of sex predators trolling the Internet for young victims.

“In some cases the predators are here in Idaho, and in some cases they are willing to come to Idaho to meet the child,” Cooper said. “There aren’t really statewide statistics because it’s handled locally.”

Bengfort hasn’t heard of any serious cases of students in the Coeur d’Alene School District getting into dangerous situations because of their Internet activity but said that makes no difference in whether kids need safety lessons.

“We’re just trying to be proactive,” she said. “I don’t want us to have an incident and then people start to get concerned about it.”