Saturday, February 04, 2006

Teens and Internet safety

I was intrigued by a February 1st segment on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" which discussed the popularity among teenagers for and other social networking sites.

Myspace enables users to post profiles, journal entries and photos, create a virtual community of friends and to chat. You can post as much or as little as you want and the former is what is cause for concern. The general sentiment seems to be that teenagers are quite comfortable posting lots of personal details, making them vulnerable to Internet predators and causing concerns for their safety.

A colleague and I recently got into a discussion about this issue and she pointed me to the story of Kacie Woody.

Kacie, a 13-year-old who lived in Holland, Arkansas, frequented Internet chat rooms and had met two boys online who would eventually become her boyfriends. The first was Scott, a 14-year-old living in suburban Atlanta, and Dave, an 18-year-old from San Diego.

On the evening of December 3, 2002, Kacie was home alone. Her father Rick, a police officer, was working the night shift that would end at 2 a.m. and her older brother, Tim, was studying at the library. (Kacie's mother had been killed in a car accident when Kacie was 7). Kacie occupied herself chatting online with Scott, who was now her boyfriend. She also spent part of the evening speaking to Dave, who was now just a friend.

Scott and Kacie chatted most of the evening, but their conversation ended abruptly. Kacie's last message to Scott was at 9:41 p.m. Scott continued to message Kacie, but received no response. His messages grew increasingly desperate as he begged Kacie to let him know she was alright. He even called Kacie's home around 10:15, but received no answer.

Kacie's brother Tim arrived home a little after 11:30 and realized Kacie wasn't there. He called his father at 11:40 to let him know Kacie was missing. Law enforcement was notified and the search for Kacie began.

During the course of the investigation, police discovered that Dave, Kacie's online friend from San Diego, was actually a 47-year-old named David Fuller. Police discovered that Fuller had rented a minivan and were able to trace it to a local storage facility. When police arrived and opened the door to the rented locker, they heard a shot. Fuller had killed himself. Kacie was lying dead in the back of the minivan. She had been raped and shot in the head.

Cathy Frye, a staff writer with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, told Kacie's story in a four-part series that appeared in the paper in December 2003. The series, entitled "Caught in the Web," won the American Society of Newspaper Editors Award for nondeadline writing in 2004.

An Associated Press article dated today also speaks to the issue of teenagers and Internet safety. It discusses in particular the situation in Middletown, Connecticut, where police suspect that as many as seven girls have been assaulted by men they met on MySpace.

We have to find effective ways to caution teenagers about divulging personal information online. The American Library Association provides a list of helpful resources for doing so. We have to stop such tragic stories from happening again.


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