Web hazards addressed in schools

The web sites have names like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook. They fall under a loose heading of “social networking” sites that instantly enable friends and perfect strangers from around the country and around the world to link up, exchange pictures, ideas and music, and read each other’s web logs.

MySpace is by far the fastest growing and most popular of these sites, but, like many new trends that have emerged from the Internet, revealed its dark side.

Although no one under 14 is supposed to post their own profiles on the site, it’s been discovered that Internet predators have arranged meetings with underage teens who have posted profiles indicating they’re older than they really are. Some teens have posted highly personal information, down to class schedules, addresses and phone numbers. And parents around the country have been appalled when they have discovered suggestive or downright obscene material their children have posted on MySpace or other sites.

Officials at Catholic high schools around the diocese said they have been focusing on making parents aware of these sites and some pitfalls teenagers can experience if they post things that are either too personal or improper.

Danny Dorsel, interim principal at Cardinal Newman School in Columbia, said all computers at the school have been blocked from accessing MySpace. He has also discussed MySpace and other similar sites with the school’s board, and sent a letter about the issue home to parents. He said the sites are also discussed in computer and theology classes, and were recently addressed at a school-wide assembly after it was discovered that some students at Cardinal Newman had questionable material on their MySpace sites. Dorsel said that staff members at the school have periodically checked the site to see if any members that identify themselves as Cardinal Newman students have posted inappropriate pictures or “anything that would put the school in a bad light.”

“There was concern with just the morality of some of the content on the site,” Dorsel said. “These sites are not inherently bad – like everything else, it’s when they’re abused that things go wrong.”

Dorsel, like other administrators from around the Diocese, stressed the fact that no one is telling Cardinal Newman students – or other students -that they can’t post profiles on MySpace or other similar sites.

“We put a lot of responsibility on monitoring computer activity to parents, and that can lead to some pretty in-depth discussions between parents and kids,” Dorsel said. He said his letter provided instructions to parents who wanted to learn how to block access to MySpace from their home computers.

Dianne Trapini, principal of St. Francis Xavier High School in Sumter, said the issue became a concern at the 41-student school in recent months. In response, she wrote about MySpace and similar sites in a parent newsletter and tightened up the monitoring of student Internet usage at the school. MySpace and similar sites are blocked, and Trapini said teachers are in the room at all times when students access the Internet while at school.

“This is a parent issue, and my job is to inform the parents. I don’t have any control over what’s going on at home, but we can inform the parents about what’s out there,” she said.

David Held, principal at Bishop England High School, said he and staff members at the Charleston school have also been reminding students about the potential impact that their online profiles could have on their futures.

“College admission officers and even potential employers have been known to go on these sites and look up students and applicants,” Held said. “We want to remind the students that once you put something on the Internet, it’s out there and can reflect negatively on you if it’s inappropriate.”

Held also said staff members will respond if they learn that a student has posted a threat against another student or against the school on a MySpace blog or other similar site. He said the important thing is to warn students and parents of potential pitfalls of social networking sites, but not to make them feel as if they are banned from using them.

“We told parents that this is how kids communicate these days – just because your kid’s got a profile on that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing,” he said.