Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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Best defense against cyber bullies and predators: Talk to your kids

January 12, 2011
Op-Eds

Mercury News
By Jackie Speier

See the original piece here.

In my generation, most kids faced a bully at the playground or on the sidewalk going to and from school. The reasons for the taunts were usually trivial, more about a person larger than you having fun at your expense. At home, the harassment ended.

But the sanctuary of four walls no longer exists in this enlightened age of the Internet. A classmate or a perfect stranger can post information about you online that it is nearly impossible to remove, and it can follow you for years, anywhere.

Our society is developing a dichotomous personality: reality and virtual. Questions not normally asked in public are fair game online. In most cases, the questions don't need to be asked, since people are more than willing to post intimate details online. Would you show a picture of yourself in a swimsuit to a total stranger at the local grocery store? Yet, posting pictures of your vacation online is the virtual equivalent.

According to a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report, 8- to 18-year-olds spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes online every day. Even more remarkable is that a multi-tasking teenagers can surf the Internet, listen to music and text friends all at the same time. Will the typical online teenager be careful not to reveal personal information that could prove damaging at a later date?

Worse yet, will this curious young mind venture into a chat room where predators will try to arrange a face-to-face meeting? The law of averages says mistakes will be made and, in a few cases, the consequences may be fatal.

Internet connectivity has allowed us to shrink borders, but sometimes at a dear price. Last year, a Rutgers freshman killed himself after his roommate streamed a video of him kissing another boy.

According to the National Crime Prevention Center, the incidence rate of cyber harassment is higher among females than males, and is most prevalent among 15- and 16-year-olds. More than half of this age group reported at least one online harassment incident in the past year.

According to a 2008 U.S. Department of Justice survey, one in five children is subject to unwanted sexual solicitations online, many in chat rooms where predators assume a false identity and work for weeks, months or years to make contact in the real world with their victim.

Many websites gather personal information from visitors in order to target specific users with advertisements. I support the Federal Trade Commission's recent proposal for a "Do Not Track" list as a way to protect consumers shopping and surfing online. I will introduce federal legislation to prevent websites from tracking users who want full privacy protections.

If children create online profiles on social-networking sites, they should learn not to reveal too much personal information. They must be aware of chat room lures and understand that humiliating someone online is unacceptable. Remember, posting a seductive picture of yourself online at 13 can haunt you years later when you apply for a job.

Fighting Internet abusers isn't easy. They hide behind the First Amendment. Cyber thugs and predators are cropping up faster than we can develop legal defenses to shut them down.

I believe the best approach is to sit down with our children and talk to them about how to use the Internet safely. As a parent, I can vouch that it will take more than one session to get this point across: "When you send online information, would you want it to be on the front page of tomorrow's newspaper? If 'no,' talk to me!"