By U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
The long summer days ahead will bring more than bike rides and trips to the neighborhood swimming pool for today’s technology-savvy kids. Many children and teenagers will fill idle time surfing the Internet and logging on to social networking sites to stay connected to their friends.
Unfortunately, for some, the Internet is not merely an information source, a communication tool, or even a means of entertainment. For sexual predators, it is a vast, unregulated space in which they can lure and victimize innocent children. So, when our kids get on the Internet, it’s hard to know just what – or whom – they will encounter.
Along with many parents across Texas, I was disturbed to learn of a Cedar Creek school bus driver who solicited and sent sexually explicit materials to a minor online. The “minor” in this case was actually an undercover investigator posing as a 13 year-old girl. But in many other instances, the victim is just what the aggressor is seeking – a vulnerable child or teen.
I believe that there are two important ways we can keep young Americans safe when they venture into cyberspace.
First, we must place every possible barrier between deviant individuals and the websites our children visit. In May, the Senate passed a measure I cosponsored to build on the successful efforts of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act by expanding its reach to the Internet. The Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators (KIDS) Act would mandate convicted sex offenders to register email addresses, instant messaging screen names, or other identifiers used to communicate over the Internet. The measure would also require the U.S. Attorney General to maintain a system that enables commercial social networking sites to identify users who are listed in the National Sex Offender Registry.
So, when that Cedar Creek bus driver, who is required by law to register as a sex offender, completes his four-year prison sentence, social networking sites like Friendster, Xanga, MySpace, and others, that cater to children and teens, will have the capability to deny him access to the site – and to our children. I hope this legislation will prevent websites frequented by our kids from becoming fertile ground for known pedophiles and other sexual deviants. But even with these safeguards, we can never completely eliminate the danger.
The fact is, many kids will at some point find themselves in a risky situation online. A study on teen Internet behavior by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that, among youth between ages 13 and 17, 71 percent have been contacted online by a stranger. Forty-five percent of teens have been asked to share personal information, and an alarming 30 percent have considered meeting someone in person whom they know only from the Internet. Thus, it is vitally important that our kids’ ability to recognize risks online keep pace with their growing aptitude for technology.
The second way to keep our children safe online is to educate them so they do not become the vulnerable victims that Internet perpetrators target.
The Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act creates an Online Safety and Technology Working Group, comprised of business community leaders, public interest groups, and appropriate Federal agencies, to evaluate activities promoting online safety. The working group would assess current parental control technology, blocking and filtering software, and age-appropriate labels for content. The bill would also require schools receiving funding from the federal Universal Service program to offer age-appropriate online behavior education in the classroom. The goal is to help school-aged children safely navigate the Internet and teach them how to respond to cyber-bullying and online solicitation. Lastly, the legislation calls on the Federal Trade Commission to carry out a nationwide program to raise public awareness. That measure also passed the Senate in May.
Finally, and most importantly, it is crucial that mothers and fathers be just as aware of online dangers as their children. Parents should acquaint themselves with the websites their children visit, and know with whom their children communicate online. To learn ways to keep children safe, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website, which has helpful resources for parents: www.missingkids.com.
Through tougher laws, educated children, and increased parental involvement we can make Texas a safe place for our kids.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas.