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Federal Way company looks to make social networks safer | Commentary

Social networking sites such as Myspace.com and Facebook.com are common “stomping grounds” for many youth ages 11-19.

Taking the place of local hangouts, these sites provide ample opportunity for youth to communicate with friends and, unfortunately, strangers.

It’s probable most adults are now aware of the dangers of social networking sites as they relate to pedophiles.

Most adults, however, may not be aware that social networking sites also provide ample prey for “cyberbullies” and identification thieves. There is also the threat of kids and teens being exposed to pornographic images and inappropriate language.

MSNBC’s Dateline reporter Chris Hansen has been catching pedophiles who stalk young boys and girls online in high-profile sting operations.

The subsequent televised series, called “To Catch a Predator,” has been successful in showcasing how far these men are willing to go. Thinking they are “chatting” with an underage boy or girl, the men suggest meeting for sex. The scenarios are all different, but what remains constant is the belief these men have that they are setting up sexual encounters with underage children.

What they don’t know is the “child” is actually an adult sitting in a room with armed police who are waiting to make an arrest.

Last week, a 49-year-old Missouri woman who took the persona of a 16-year-old boy and created an online relationship with a 13-year-old neighbor girl goes to trial after the girl hanged herself, allegedly because of the woman’s deceit.

After gaining the girl’s trust, the woman, Lori Drew, still acting as the boy, began sending mean messages to the girl.

Drew was indicted on charges of conspiracy and fraudulently gaining access to someone else’s computer. She pleaded not guilty.

In addition to the horrors kids on social networking sites can encounter by strangers and those misrepresenting themselves, they are also frequently victims of ID theft.

Virtual thieves gain ample information from many kids’ sites, as well as photographs they can copy for illegal uses.

One of the most prolific threats to kids and teens on social networking sites is their peers. Cyberbullying, as it’s called, is one of the fasted growing ways for peers to pressure, make fun of, gossip and lie about one another.

It may seem harmless — kids bullying kids over the Internet — but what seems innocent is often capable of escalating to dangerous proportions. It is common for cyberbullies to continue their harassment in a person-to-person confrontation.

Given the dangers kids can encounter on social networking sites, why do parents still allow them to use the sites, and why are kids willing to put themselves at risk?

There may be an element of disbelief that it couldn’t happen to them. There’s also the realization that social networking sites, in their purest form, are not inherently bad. They are simply the conduit of “cybercrimes.”

So, what are social networking sites doing about it? Recently, a group of high-tech businesses, such as Myspace, Facebook, Verizon, Yahoo and others; non-profit organizations; academics; and technology companies joined together to identify effective ways to keep youth safe on these sites.

The collaboration, called The Internet Safety Technical Task Force, is being administered by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. They are charged with finding a solution for age verification and presenting it to attorney generals across the country in December 2008.

Concerned about the dangers kids face online, about four years ago I started Red Star hs, a for-profit corporation aimed at finding a viable solution for age verification.

With an advisory group consisting of academics, technology experts, bankers, parents and government officials Sen. Tracey Eide and Rep. Skip Priest, the proposed solution has gained a great deal of support in Federal Way.

If you would like to participate in a survey of parents as well as teens ages 13-19, please go to www.redstarhs.com and take the short survey.

The results will be posted online and with The Internet Safety Technical Task Force.

Federal Way resident Kelly Maloney can be reached at malonk_4@yahoo.com.

Go to www.redstarhs.com to take a short survey about keeping the Internet safe for kids and teens. The survey is for adults as well as teens ages 13 to 19.

Learn how to stay safe online: www.atg.wa.gov/InternetSafety/default.aspx and www.msnbc.com/id/10912603.

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