…How safe is this cyber community

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It’s an online community where people can register to meet new friends, promote their music, clothes, modeling abilities and other talents.

For the most part, the site is a source of entertainment, a way to express yourself, and a means to keep in touch with just about everyone you come in contact with.

But just like a firearm in the hands of a violent person, the combination of access to thousands of profiles full of personal information and the want to take advantage of young adults can be a potentially dangerous situation.

Email newsletter signup

Just last week a 16-year-old Michigan girl was persuaded by a man on to catch a flight to Jericho. Fortunately for her, authorities found the young woman and convinced her to head back home Friday – before she made it to her “25-year-old male friend.”

At least that is who she assumed she was meeting, but now she will never know.

This recent situation describes the main danger for those using sites similar to

It is simple for members to create a profile, post pictures, blogs and other personal information, and though it may seem harmless, that access allows predators to lure children, and adults, into situations no one wants to be face with.

“There’s nothing wrong with It’s actually a good little site if it’s treated right,” Demopolis Police detective sergeant Tim Soronen said. “But we have made an arrest here from MySpace when a guy thought he was meeting a 14-year-old girl. It was actually just a profile we created.”

For most people, is used as a tool to meet people in the area, find someone with the same interests, or maybe even begin a relationship, but people must be aware that not everyone is as honest as they seem.

“I don’t see why students need to go online to meet people at all. They are just setting themselves up for danger,” Demopolis High School computer teacher William Martin Jr. said. “Why can’t you just meet people the old-fashioned way – meet them at a party or pick up the phone.”

But if you insist on meeting someone off the Web, Soronen suggests doing your own research first.

“Always be cautious contacting those you don’t know. If they want to talk to you, ask for their phone number and their name. And if they are hesitant about giving that out – stay away,” he said. “If they give it to you, get the information and verify it yourself, or have your parents do it.”

The quickest way to do the research would be to search for the number on the web, or use the phone book to make sure that person is where they say they are.

Most of the time, people feel more comfortable giving out information to individuals they think are far away, but if their online buddy were actually around the corner, the situation would probably change.

“Never take for granted who people say they are,” Soronen, who has a MySpace account, added, “they could be anybody.”

“From a teaching standpoint, we need to monitor our students so they will stay off those sites as much as possible because you have those predators out there, trying to lure students,” Martin said. “We have to watch closely as far as safety is concerned and monitor what they are doing to make sure the students remain safe. Safety is the main emphasis here.”, like many other sites, allows users to provide much information about themselves.

Taking quizzes that ask for birthdays, what kind of car you drive, favorite places to eat, middle names, or schools, may seem like a fun game to those who do it. But from this information, a predator could put together pieces of the puzzle to figure out what time you’ll go home, when you’ll be by yourself and where you live.

“When it comes to giving personal data, stay away from it,” Martin said. “If you want to take the quizzes, be aware that predators can find out a lot.”

However when it comes to being a member of sites like MySpace, Martin said there aren’t any set guidelines to safe usage, unless guardians watch every click of the mouse.

“It’s up to the student and what kind of person he or she is,” he said. “They really must be educated on the dangers and until we do that, they won’t be aware of how dangerous it is.”

Soronen suggests using parental blocks and passwords to protect your child from visiting sites.

“My kids have to call me in the room if they are trying to get on a site that is password protected. Passwords allow parents to know what sites their parents are going to,” Soronen said. “The computer should be kept in a common room, as well. If the child is trying to get a computer put in their room, something is probably up.”

However Demopolis resident Dr. Arthur Ogden said the best way to keep children safe from online predators is to keep them off the site, no questions asked.

“The whole Internet is still new territory and we are still trying to figure out restrictions that go along with it,” Ogden said. “That site is just bad news. With a child that hasn’t graduated from high school yet…it’s like putting a sheep in a corral full of wolves.”

Ogden admits that his views may sound “terribly repressive,” but he believes that is the only way to keep his children safe.

“Let’s face it kids are gullible and we have to monitor what they are doing. If parents insist on letting their children use those site, I encourage them to sit down and go on the site with the kids,” Ogden said. “Learn about what they are doing. Yes, there has to be trust within the parent-child relationship, but as parents, we have to be sure we know what goes on there.”

However, it’s hard for many parents to understand what goes on in the World Wide Web, and it’s even harder to stay on the same level as their children who grew up in the age of technology.

Although Ogden is computer savvy, having worked with top-of-the-line technology at Demopolis’ Alabama Southern campus, and knows how to trace the sites visited on the Internet – after they’ve been deleted from the history- he still refuses to allow is pre-teen and teenage children become members of

“They can get on it when they move out, have their own houses, pay their own bills, and have their own Internet – even then we hope we’ve laid a good enough foundation for them to make smart decisions,” Ogden said about his family. “But that’s just my view. What do I know? I only have nine kids.”