A fake name, fake profile, fake e-mail address and in a matter of minutes, millions of names, pictures and personal information were available.

"I feel like I'm violating these kids but they are so far out there in the Internet," parent Kathy Gentner said. "It didn't feel right to me. I'm just doing it because I'm a parent and I want to keep my children safe."

By: Toni Becker

Something didn't feel right.

A fake name, fake profile, fake e-mail address and in a matter of minutes, millions of names, pictures and personal information were available.

"I feel like I'm violating these kids but they are so far out there in the Internet," parent Kathy Gentner said. "It didn't feel right to me. I'm just doing it because I'm a parent and I want to keep my children safe."

She wasn't the only one.

On May 31, a handful of parents learned first-hand what dangers lurk beneath online diary Web sites like Xanga and MySpace during a presentation by Assistant District Attorney Sean Gresh at Palisades Middle School.

"Students know more about this stuff than we do," Gresh said, adding that children have the benefit of learning about computers and technology at an early age through school. "The downside is you have to stay ahead of them to know what they're doing."

At its core, Gresh said the idea behind MySpace is not a bad one.

"It's a great idea if we can keep it safe for people," he said.

But many teenagers regularly provide personal information, opening themselves up to online predators, and other dangers.

And while, technically, students must be 16 to post their own site, the rules are rarely followed.

"Children can make up whatever birth date they feel like and be as old as they want on the Internet," Gresh said, adding that after a site is constructed, the only way for parents to get rid of it, even if the child is underage, is to know the password.

When one parent pointed out that the site needs supervision, Gresh's response was, "Yes, but where does the supervision come in?"

The answer, parents.

"I still think parents have a false sense of security in their home," he said.

"The question is why do people feel safe in their own home when they have access to this window?"

A quick glance at the site of one local high school student revealed little personal information, but a look through her photo gallery unveiled a picture of her in a cheerleading uniform with the school's name clearly visible.

At least one other student wasn't as careful, and revealed all of her personal information, including her address.

"That's the most dangerous when you have someone who's that truthful and they give their exact address; then all you need is MapQuest," Gresh said.

Some of the sites can also provide a portal into other accounts and sites parents may not want their children viewing.

"This site looks innocent enough," Gresh said, as he pulled up the site of an area high school student.

But a few select clicks on pictures listed below as the student's "friends" directed visitors to other sites, like one about sexual fetishes.

When it comes to worrying about students falling into the trap of a sexual predator, Gresh said they're not worried about the confident kids.

"It's the marginalized kids we really target," he said, of students who lack confidence and social skills, and may turn to the Internet as a way to open up and be more outgoing.

But it's still important for parents to know what their children are doing.

"A lot of parents just don't know," parent Sue Luber said.

Safeguards and passwords at home may not help either, since students might set up a new account at a friends's house.

"You may know about the ones your child lets you know about, but they have ones you don't know about," Gresh said, of youth hiding certain personal sites from their parents.

After seeing some of what is available on the sites, Lisa Stenger, a parenting educator for the Upper Bucks Parenting Center, said parents might feel the need to rush home and confront their child.

"One of the things that's the hardest to do as an adult is to approach this calmly," she said.

Seeing something online might look incriminating, but Stenger said, it's not always clear what's really going on.

"We shouldn't jump to conclusions," she said, of youth possibly being the victim of ridicule or bullying, by someone posting a picture they knew anothing about.

Stenger, along with fellow parenting educator Lora Stein, spoke to parents about parenting online.

Using the center's iceberg analogy, they talked about the different layers of a child's emotional and relational health.

The outward behavior is the layer parents can see, but beneath that, Stein said, is the emotional and relational health.

Stein and Stenger offered tips on how to care for a child's different layers of health and how to solve problems.

When it comes to establishing online safety in the household, Stenger suggested having everyone in the family involved in setting ground rules, and working with children to come up with solutions that will work for everyone.

"If we don't give them the respect, they are not going to respect us back," she said.

But online sites are not the only dilemma affecting students. Cyberbullying is also a growing problem.

"We spend hours and hours working on this," said Ellie Scheitrum, Palisades Middle School computer applications teacher, of cyberbullying.

While the problems occur when children are at home, Scheitrum said it carries over into the school day.

"They write stuff, tease and bully, then come back to school, which is difficult because it's not our stuff," Scheitrum said, of problems that occur while students are using computers at home. "It's not our property. This is a big can of worms here anyone can stir up whenever they feel like."

Gresh has made many presentations to students at the school about the online sites, as well as about cyberbullying.

"It's something kids need to hear over and over again," Scheitrum said. "It's just amazing how a predator can track down a student."

Many students, she said, are surprised when they find out they are opening themselves up to possible predators.

When it comes to cyberbullying, Scheitrum said, they also don't realize how easy it is to cross the line.

"It doesn't really take a lot to be unlawful," she said.

Toni Becker is a reporter for The Free Press. She can be reached at tkbecker@berksmontnews.com.

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