Online Hangouts Fun For Kids, But Also Dangerous

It's easy.

"It's simple and right to the point," says Cocoa Collins, college student.

It's a way to keep in touch.

"I keep in contact with one of my friends. He's in the marines," says Keith Hemdon II.

And it seems all in good fun, until....

"Somebody I didn't know sent me a message to meet him in a park, but I just deleted it."

And that's exactly what Biloxi Police Investigator Donnie Dobbs wants young people to do.

"There are a lot of good people out there on the internet, but there's also a lot of bad people as well. These people are using MySpace, AOL and Yahoo sites like that to target these children as potential victims," says Dobbs.

Dobbs has been investigating cyber crime and predators for more than ten years. It's a job that's growing as more people share more and more personal information online.

"They're posting their pictures and their also posting personal information about themselves, which they should never do," says Dobbs.

Many MySpace and Facebook users I talked with say they already know this and watch what they put on the pages.  But, some have still run into problems.

"Some people steal your pictures. Some people become you.  I don't know how many times I've had people say, 'You know,' and I'm like, 'I don't know you,'" says Collins.

"I know so many girls have guys leave them message after message after message and they've never met.  Some of the messages are a little on the vulgar side," says Hemon II.

"If you're really worried about other people looking at it, then don't put it on there," says Kristen Boyer, college student.

"I really don't put real stuff about me on there," says middle school student Curtis Haynes.

They say no birthdays, addresses or phone numbers will show up on their pages. Police say these are all smart ways of thinking when hopping on networking sites.

"On the internet, you can be who you want to be. You don't have to tell the truth. So why, why give somebody fuel to find out who you are and either target you, or come stalk you or reach out to you, if you live in say the Biloxi, Gulfport area," says Dobbs.

At the Boys and Girls Clubs, young people get internet safety lessons through Netsmartz. It has programs formatted to kids of all ages on how to surf and chat without opening themselves up to danger.

"It's a safety net teaching them who they should or should not communicate with and how to communicate properly on the internet. It gives them some safety insight as far as whom not to talk to as predators, to keep their password place handy and to pretty much understand how to use internet as a whole," says Adrienne Reese, Boys and Girls Program Instructor.

MySpace and Facebook offer safety tips to users and have security devices in place to keep predators away. Some of the best ways for users to protect themselves:

  • Set your page to private, so only people invited as friends can view it.
  • Change passwords
  • Ignore pop-ups
  • Delete requests for more personal information.

Many MySpace & Facebook users I talked to say they already do that.

"I changed my profile to private. I changed my picture to private. I don't even have pictures of me anymore. I have a drawing of my car," says Boyer.

"None of my MySpace friends are people that I don't recognize," says Collins.

"It's all in how you use it," says high school student Rachel Williams.

Limiting access and being cautious about what you post to MySpace and Facebook are two safeguards, but nothing's perfect. Last month when provocative photos of Miss New Jersey surfaced, they came from her Facebook page. So the best rule to remember, once you put personal info or pictures online, they're out there.

For more information on internet safety you can check out these sites: