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Carnegie Mellon tosses Internet safety net over region's schools

| Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

Caroline Ellis plays by the rules. The St. Bede School eighth-grader only uses the Internet for research projects and, unlike some of her friends, has sworn off social networking sites until at least high school.

"Facebook can be really dangerous," said Ellis, 13, of Squirrel Hill. "People can take your pictures, save them and put your head on someone else. You really need to be careful with what goes on there."

Officials at Carnegie Mellon University want more teens and tweens to adopt Ellis' attitude. The University's Information Networking Institute kicked off a communitywide Internet awareness program Monday at St. Bede's School in Point Breeze to teach children safe online behavior. The Verizon Foundation sponsored the program with a $20,000 grant.

"Children have a tendency to be innocent, and we need them to know there is a consequence, good or bad, to their actions online," said Mary Drummond, principal at St. Bede's. "If we don't teach younger children about the Internet, they won't know that they need to be responsible, and the consequences won't be so good."

The CMU program offers a pair of Web-based tools to students, parents and teachers. One is an encyclopedia of terms and tools to combat cyberbullying, identity theft and online predators. The other is the "Carnegie Cadets" video game, originally launched in 2007 to fourth- and fifth-graders and now used by more than 100 schools nationwide to teach cyber safety, said Dena Haritos Tsamitis, director of the Information Networking Institute and director of education, training and outreach for Carnegie Mellon CyLab, a universitywide research program dedicated to cyber security, cyber privacy and cyber dependability.

A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of children ages 12 to 17 use online social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. That number was up from 58 percent in 2007 and 55 percent in 2006.

The disturbing trend, Tsamitis said, is that many parents don't realize their children are using those sites. Another Pew study showed that 89 percent of children who go online use social networking sites, but only 34 percent of parents reported their children did so. Those sites require members to be at least 13, but Tsamitis said today's teens know how to bypass the simple security checks.

"There's really no measures they can take, so we have to look to parents, grandparents, to make sure they're monitoring what their children are doing," Tsamitis said. "It's not just the Internet we're concerned about, but this mobile world we live in."

While St. Bede's is the first school to have a full partnership with CMU, most local schools play some role in teaching their students about being safe online, said Sarah McCluan, spokeswoman for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. For example, Hampton School District relays the importance of Internet safety during assemblies throughout the year.

"Internet safety and security requires staying informed about the rapidly changing technology environment," said Patricia Forrest, spokeswoman for the district. "At home, in school and throughout our society, this is a shared responsibility of policymakers, technology leaders, users and the community."

CMU officials hope that by reaching out to children at a younger age -- St. Bede's program starts with first-graders -- students will grow up with an awareness of online responsibility.

"This is a great opportunity to mold how young children behave on the Internet," Tsamitis said. "They are comfortable making friends on their own. Now they can learn who and what to trust online."

Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review

St Bede computer teacher Valerie Casper goes over the items in the backpack of "The MySecure Cyberspace Game" on Monday with second-graders. Carnegie Mellon University, Verizon and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl were at the school to hand out the interactive games designed to teach internet safety and computer security.

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