Keeping a Watchful Eye on the Web
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Sheriff's Deputy T.J. DeLitta talks to students all day in the hallways and classrooms of Eagle Ridge and Mercer middle schools, but he doesn't really get to know them until they go home. That's when his computer screen lights up with the icons of students going online.
With the popularity among teenagers of such Web sites as MySpace.com and Xanga.com, and amid alarming reports about how some people take advantage of teenagers online, Loudoun County public school officials are increasingly monitoring the sites to prevent students from putting themselves at risk.
DeLitta, the middle schools' law enforcement liaison, said he often finds intimate postings by local students -- bragging about weekend exploits or musing on romantic infatuations -- alongside photographs.
Throughout the school year, he has told as many as two dozen students how easy it was for him to find their personal information. He tells them that if he can find such information, so can college admissions officers, football coaches or online predators.
His message is simple: "What you put online, you're going to be responsible for eventually, so be careful."
Tuesday night in Ashburn, DeLitta delivered his message of caution to about 60 parents at Eagle Ridge Middle School, telling them that school administrators and police can do only so much about activity that occurs behind closed doors.
"Most of this stuff happens when you are at home," DeLitta told the parents.
More than 90 percent of students at the deputy's two schools say they have access to the Internet at home, according to a survey DeLitta conducted among 1,310 students.
Although school computers filter many teen blogs or sites with adult content, home computer use often goes unchecked, said DeLitta, one of 14 sheriff's deputies assigned to the school district as resource officers.
He suggested that parents set ground rules for computer use, much the way they might for their children's Saturday-night plans: deciding what sites they can visit, whom they can talk to, how long they can be online and where they can use the computer.
The location of home computers can be important, DeLitta said, because children may be less likely to visit questionable Web sites if the computer is in a more visible place. In his survey, 17.5 percent of students said they use the computer in the kitchen or living room; the rest log on in a basement, study or bedroom.
He encouraged parents to talk to their children about the information they put online and to warn them against posting photos or other personal information -- such as real names, their school or addresses -- that could make them easy to find.
And he urged parents to remind children of an early lesson: Don't talk to strangers. An anonymous chat can lead to an online sexual solicitation, something that, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 20 percent of children receive.
In the Loudoun survey, 20 percent of middle schoolers said they chat with people they don't know. Six percent said they had been asked to meet face to face with someone whom they had met online, and 2 percent said they had done so.
DeLitta said that parents concerned about their child's Internet use can install surveillance software. "That way, they'll know [what their children are doing]," he said. "No questions or lying or going around their backs. . . . They'll just know."
Paul Cimino, a father who attended the meeting, said he had monitored his seventh-grade daughter's computer to see where she was spending her time online and found that she was visiting MySpace.com, a site that he and his wife had forbidden her to use.
They took her computer out of her room, and now she is permitted to use it only for school research or for downloading music.
But DeLitta told parents that restricting children's computer use can be difficult. "The Internet is their future. . . . To say to them 'You cannot do this' is not my goal. But they need to do it safely," he said.