Teenage girls posting 'dangerous' photos online

By Alice Hudson

New Zealand girls as young as 13 are offering scantily-clad photos of themselves online and teenagers are posting contact details on personal pages - all of which are available to gangs, paedophiles and others with sinister motives.

Detective Constable Aaron Kennaway, of Nelson police's child abuse unit, told the Herald on Sunday it had got to the point where almost every case he dealt with involving a young person had "some sort of link to Bebo [or sites like it]". Sex, drugs and bullying were recurrent themes.

One young female Auckland police officer, who had a Bebo profile that did not state her occupation, was invited via the site's messaging system to meet unknown persons at addresses she knew to be gang 'pads'.

Pictures of Kiwi girls posing provocatively for the camera were accessed by the Herald on Sunday from social networking websites used daily by thousands of Kiwi teens.

Many teenagers' profiles also listed personal information such as contact details and the child's school.

One of the sites, TeenSpot.com, which permits members as young as 13, even allowed unregistered users to search member profiles by country, gender, age, and sexuality, and had a tick-box option to only bring up those profiles with pictures.

The social networking sites, where young people set up profile pages to chat with friends, post photographs and messages, and meet new people, are causing increasing concern because of the ease with which sexual predators can access pictures and make contact with young people.

Kennaway said police were preparing a statement of warning to help young people and their parents wise up about the potential dangers.

Police have also expressed concern about children using social networking sites to find drug dealers, and offering sexual favours in exchange for alcohol and drugs. '

"Young people as young as 12 are misusing Bebo," Kennaway said. He said technically, teenagers offering adult-themed photos of themselves over the internet could be breaking the law, by making available an indecent publication of someone under 18.

"Although I would not seek to arrest them. But they are exposing themselves to a great deal of danger."

Police and internet safety watchdog Netsafe were concerned people did not realise that once they posted a picture it was effectively public property, could never be erased and could make its way into the wrong hands.

Teenagers assumed other teenagers were the ones looking at their profiles.

"I've got a profile, and I didn't have to put that I'm 41 - I'm 17 and I go to Nelson Boys College," said Kennaway, who monitors sites regularly.

He advised parents to check up on their children's online pages. "If they are doing nothing wrong then they will have nothing to hide ... You've got to drum into them that you don't give out personal information."

It wasn't snooping, he said. "As soon as they put something up there, it's actually very, very, public."

Netsafe's Rachel Harrison said kids needed to realise that once they put a picture up on the internet, it was there forever. Kids weren't aware of the implications of a "problematic digital footprint" - that could come back to haunt them years down the track or potentially get them in strife with other teenagers - or with strangers.

Technology was posing "extra challenges" to the minefield that was growing up, she said.

"You can't stop them from accessing them [the sites]," she advised parents. "The only way to keep safe is for young people to know how to look after themselves, and that comes through education."

Netsafe is this month launching Hector's World, a charitable subsidiary that aims to drill in internet and mobile phone safety to preschoolers.

It features Hector the Protector, a bottlenose dolphin character that will teach tots about the importance of keeping personal information to themselves, from the very first time they access the net.

"They won't understand what a paedophile is but they will understand that personal information is precious."

Bruce Pilbrow, chief executive of Parents Inc, said the organisation regularly heard from parents distraught over what they had found on their children's Bebo pages. "It's so easy to be promiscuous over the internet," he said.

The organisation was undertaking its own testing of the security of Bebo pages, after reports teenagers were "breaking in" to other kids' profile pages, and wreaking havoc in the way of bullying, he said. "It's absolutely brutal, what we are seeing. I [wonder] sometimes how they survive it."

But he said the role of parents doesn't change, even though the world does. Of the provocative pictures of teens, he said: "Why does a 13-year-old feel she needs to do that? Usually it comes back - and I hate to say it - to a parenting issue."

He advised parents to do what he had done when his 13-year-old wanted a Bebo page - start an open dialogue. "Sit down with your child and talk about the benefits, and the risks, and how to protect themselves."

Senior lecturer in new media at Auckland University, Dr Luke Goode, said there was a big tendency to "scapegoat the technology", for what was effectively the same behaviour teens had always displayed.

"Parents have been concerned about girls going out dressed scantily forever ... it's just a new vehicle."

He said teens often "exploited" parents' ignorance of new media.

Safety policies of the "many" networking sites, use of which had exploded in the past two years, could not be relied on to keep kids safe, as they "allow people to breach their own privacy".

A TeenSpot.com spokesman said it did its best "to remove any content we deem problematic, but some parents may disagree or find uncomfortable the content submitted by other teenagers". He put the responsibility for safety back on parents. "This is why parental involvement in online activities is imperative to children only accessing content their parents find appropriate."

TeenSpot acknowledged the impossibility of ensuring that all of its users were of the allowed 13-18 age, although it said it did its best to keep out "predators"

Parents' Safety Tips

You can't ban them from the internet, so start an open dialogue. Talk about the benefits, risks, and how to protect yourself.

Drum into youngsters from an early age to never give out personal information.

Check your kids' online pages. It isn't snooping, the internet is a very public place

Do not rely on the safety policies of the social networking sites.

Don't blame the technology. Parenting remains the same, even though the world changes.

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