IRONDEQUOIT — Ninety percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 regularly use the Internet, and 45 percent of these children have shared personal information with someone they met online, according to Carol Geddis, director of the Catholic School Administrators Association of New York State.
Those figures become alarming, she said, when viewed in light of another statistic: There are 750,000 pedophiles online every day trolling for victims.
Geddis shared these statistics with parents and students during a series of Internet-safety seminars May 2 at Bishop Kearney High School.
According to Geddis, teens often form close relationships with people they’ve never actually met in person, or people they only have communicated with through Internet chat rooms, instant messaging, e-mail and social-networking sites such as myspace.com. On such sites, teens often post pictures, personal information and online diaries.
In recent months, such Web sites have been credited with such diverse things as helping expose and prevent a Columbine-type school massacre, providing a place for pedophiles to find victims and providing a way for children to bully each other, Geddis said.
Consequently, Internet safety has been a hot topic of discussion lately, and St. Mary School in Canandaigua, St. Ann School in Hornell, St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads and Notre Dame High School in Elmira also recently held Internet-safety seminars.
"I’m not here to tell you not to go online. I’m not here to tell you not to go on social-networking sites," Geddis told students during her May 2 presentations. Rather, she said she hoped to teach the students how to enjoy the Internet without jeopardizing their own safety or that of other students.
For starters, don’t talk to people you don’t know, she said. If a person has to ask for your name, gender, age or location, then you shouldn’t be talking to that person. Home addresses and telephone numbers, cell phone numbers, photographs and even the name of one’s school should be considered personal information and not posted online, she added.
Many teens don’t think of this information as personal, Geddis said, a fact proven by the 237 students she found on myspace.com with profiles listing Bishop Kearney as their school.
Hypothetically, a pedophile would only need to know your first name, your school’s name and what you look like in order to find you, she said. The Internet’s anonymous feel is only an illusion, she noted, and this false anonymity not only makes the Internet ideal for pedophiles, but it often leads to cyberbullying among teens.
Cyberbullying is bullying that occurs in the virtual world, when students send each other threatening messages or post online embarrassing or derogatory statements about others, according to Elizabeth Meeker, a licensed clinical psychologist and program manager of Youth Emergency Services at Coordinated Care Service Inc. of Rochester. In May Meeker gave a presentation about bullying and cyberbullying for parents and teachers at St. Mary School in Canandaigua, where she noted that teens often do or say cruel things online that they wouldn’t in person.
Statements made online also can be easily misinterpreted, and something intended as a joke can be mistakenly taken as a threat or as harassment, said Louis D’Angelo, principal of Bishop Kearney.
"Once you put something up on the Internet … it’s for the whole world to see, so be smart," he told students after one of Geddis’ presentations.
Parents should be aware of the Web sites their children routinely visit and the contents of any profiles they may have posted, Geddis said. They also should share their expectations about computer usage with their children, she added.
Parents need to know who their children are talking to online and what they’re saying, noted Joseph Holleran, principal of St. Lawrence School in Greece. Instant messaging has recently become very popular with his students, although they’re not allowed to do so from school, he said.
Students at all diocesan schools must comply with a computer-use policy, said Sister Patricia Carroll, SSJ, assistant diocesan superintendent for government services and administration. All diocesan schools also have high-speed Internet connections and are protected by a filter and firewall, she added. This prevents students from accessing sites such as myspace.com and most other sites with questionable content, she said.
Teachers are encouraged to use and promote education-friendly search engines with built-in filters such as NetTrekker.com, Sister Carroll added. Teachers also learn about Internet safety as part of their Creating a Safe Environment training, and they’re expected to include Internet safety as part of their curriculum, she said.