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Local authorities are becoming concerned over teen blogging

Thursday, May 12, 2005

SIKESTON - Parents need an upgrade. While most still teach their children "Don't talk to strangers," they need to add that "Strangers read blogs."

Local authorities along with others across the nation are becoming increasingly concerned with what at first glance seems to be a harmless trend among teens: blogging on Xanga and other blog host sites.

"Blogging" is keeping and posting a personal journal or log online.

Established in 1999 as a venue for sharing music and book reviews, Xanga (xanga.com) has become "The Weblog Community" where people post everything from their take on current events to their very deepest, private thoughts.

For many teens, blogging has become a way to vent about daily frustrations with teachers, parents and peers; a modern replacement for personal diaries and journals.

In Sikeston Xanga is "very popular," according to one Sikeston Senior High School junior who preferred to remain anonymous. "There's others but Xanga's the most popular."

She confirmed the primary use of Xanga is just to post blogs. "Just about everyone has one," she said, although she is among the few that don't as her parents don't allow her to blog. "It's just not something they want me to do."

Her friends, on the other hand, typically post on their blogs "every other day or every couple of days." Entries include "overviews of people's weekends and stuff, not too much detail."

She said some of her friends post personal information but most don't - mostly because they are concerned about hackers attacking their computers.

It isn't hacked computers authorities are worried about, however.

"My big concern is it's just a shopping site for pedophiles," said Director of Public Safety Drew Juden. "They put on there their name, where they live, what they like to do ... there are some using it for an online diary. It's there for everybody to see."

One post from a 14-year old Sikeston girl includes answers to 500 questions. Anyone with the time and desire to read it can learn her name, birthday, height, weight, hair and eye color. They can learn her favorite color is pink, her favorite food is Mexican or Chinese.

There are also answers to questions no 14-year old girl should be asked slipped in among other innocent-sounding questions.

"I don't know a thing about it but the kids know about it," Steve Borgsmiller, superintendent of the Sikeston R-6 school district, said of Xanga and online blogging. "Through word of mouth it is common knowledge to those kids who are regular users of the Internet."

Sikeston schools are among those across the nation that do not allow Xanga to be accessed. Students must sign an "appropriate use" document to use the school's computers and Internet access, according to Borgsmiller, and online blogging is not among the appropriate uses. "The school's computers are for educational purposes, not for entertainment," he said.

Xanga can also serve as a medium for "side events that cause problems in school," Borgsmiller said. "It's the old 'he said-she said' type of activity. ... This is just one of those avenues that allow social interactions to take place and some are appropriate and others are inappropriate."

While online technology is providing access to vast amounts of information, "there's a responsibility that comes with that," Borgsmiller said. "Knowledge is power." He said use of the Internet by teens needs oversight and supervision so it becomes a tool for education through appropriate use.

Part of the problem is that teens usually have more knowledge about and skill using computers and the Internet than their parents do, Borgsmiller said. "I think generally parents are aware of it - but how do you address it?" he said.

Borgsmiller suggested that parents who have a computer with Internet access for children to use in the home should place it out in the open, in a common room or area - not in the child's bedroom. "They should ask them, 'What are you doing? Who are you talking to? What is this site?'" he said.

Children's privacy should take a backseat to their safety, Juden said. "As long as they're under my roof and I'm paying the bills, it's my rules," he said.

Borgsmiller and Juden share the belief that teens posting their private information don't ever stop to consider that people other than their friends may be reading it - anyone from a guy sitting in front of a computer in Japan to a pervert next door.

"We teach our kids from almost before they are able to talk, 'Don't talk to strangers.' But here they are advertising on the Internet to every stranger in the world," Juden said.