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Stepping Up Safety Standards for Teen Bloggers
Area schools, parents, blog sites create use guidelines

By Lindsay Diokno
Maryland Newsline
Friday, April 28, 2006

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - While blogging has proven liberating for many teens, it can also become dangerous.

Many teenagers post personal information in their blogs, such as their name and home town, which predators could use to contact them.

Just this month, a trial date was set for Aug. 17 for 38-year-old Benjamin Fawley, who is charged with murder for the September 2005 death of Virginia Commonwealth University freshman Taylor Behl. According to published reports, Fawley allegedly contacted the Vienna, Va., teen through her LiveJournal blog and MySpace account.

To ward off potential dangers, and to help prevent student exposure to pornography, some schools, blog-creation sites and parents are attempting to create safer blog and Internet use policies for teens.

Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Board of Education, said there is no statewide policy for Internet or blogging use in Maryland public schools. But some school districts have broad Internet use policies in place, according to spokesmen. And some of those policies specifically address blog use.

For instance, in Montgomery County, some blog and social network sites are blocked on public school computers, said Brian Edwards, public information director for the county schools. “We have a detailed regulation on why sites are blocked – because of pornography,” he said, referring to the choice of pictures, content and links some bloggers post on their sites.

The school system doesn’t dictate students’ use of those sites outside of school, Edwards said.

Other public and private schools throughout the region have similar policies: Students can have blogs, but they aren’t allowed to create or update them on school computers. “In a nutshell, [our acceptable use policy] states that our school computers are for school use – blogs are not allowed,” said Mel Colvin, director of technology at St. John’s College High School in Northwest Washington.

The same policy applies to Georgetown Day School in Northwest Washington. David Arnstein, the school’s director of technology, said the school has a policy that doesn’t allow blog creation or participation at school, but doesn’t filter any sites from Internet searches on school computers.

But not all schools are taking direct action against blogs. Karen Emery, public information officer for Cecil County schools, said the system doesn’t have a policy prohibiting or limiting students’ use of blogs or social network sites. The school system does prohibit use of the school Internet to harass others and prohibits revealing personal information to others online, its Internet use policy states.

Baltimore County’s school system is working on ways to make parents better informed on Internet use, said communications officer Diana Spencer.

“Our school district is working with Patuxent Publishing on a handbook for parents about children Internet safety, coming out in a month or so,” she said, adding that the district has no policy against blog use.

Blog-creation sites are also developing ways to protect young bloggers. MySpace requires users to be at least 14 years old. It also lets younger users block other users from seeing their profile and asks other users to report underage users.

Xanga, another blog-creation site, allows bloggers to block other users from getting to a blogger’s site. It also lets bloggers create private entries – where only the blogger or specified users can read the post. And the age requirement for joining is 13.

Blogger also has the option to make entries private.

LiveJournal requires parental permission if the blogger is under 13, and it marks those accounts as belonging to someone underage.

Almost all sites have a privacy policy and safety tips.

Parents are also helping teens and other parents with safe blogging. Net Family News is one example. The nonprofit news service, which covers technology issues ranging from cyberbullying to iPod use, offers blog-specific safety tips for parents and teens, said Editor Anne Collier, a mother of two.

Suggestions include not posting photographs that would make the teen easily identifiable and limiting who can view the blog. The site also recommends that teens never get together with anyone who “meets” the blogger online.

More tips can be found at http://www.wiredsafety.org/ and http://www.safekids.com/.

Copyright 2006 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalismmm

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