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Miss America Promotes Internet Safety

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Having already helped police target sexual predators online, Miss America Lauren Nelson now is teaming with a California-based security software company to help educate parents and children about dangers on the Internet.

The Lawton beauty queen made Internet safety her platform issue, prompted in part by an experience she and two of her friends had with a stranger they encountered on the Internet when they were about 13.

``We were chatting innocently on the computer when we were approached by an older gentleman,'' Nelson said. ``He later sent inappropriate pictures of himself, and that's when we alerted or parents.

``If it was a problem seven years ago, it's an even bigger problem now.''

Nelson, 20, will join officials from Cupertino, Calif.-based Symantec Corp. at appearances across the country designed to help close the gap between parents with little Internet familiarity and their cyber-savvy children.

``Hopefully we can help close that gap and create a dialogue with kids and parents about Internet safety,'' Nelson said. ``We're doing things all over the country and speaking about the issue.''

Nelson is no stranger to the dangers people face can face on the Internet. In April, she posed undercover on the Internet as a lonely teenage girl as part of a sex sting with investigators in Suffolk County, New York. Eleven men were arrested after Nelson created an online profile of a 14-year-old girl that included photographs of her as a teenager.

``Doing the sting operation really opened my eyes to the way these predators work,'' Nelson said. ``They can be any age, look any way and have any background.

``But each and every one of them have the same notion in mind _ to hurt children.''

While parents may fear the prospect of their children being approached by a stranger on the Internet or lured away to a face-to-face meeting, a much more common danger for children on the Internet is cyberbullying, said Marian Merritt, an Internet safety advocate for Symantec.

``When you bring up the idea of predators, the likelihood of that happening to your child is extremely low,'' Merritt said. ``Cyberbullying is more of an issue.''

Especially with the growing popularity of social networking sites like MySpace, Merritt described cyberbullying as using the Internet or digital technology to harass someone by posting things like hurtful comments, misrepresentations or unflattering photos. Surveys show more than 40 percent of teens say they've experienced some form of cyberbullying in the last year, Merritt said.

``These things can be incredibly damaging, especially to a young child,'' she said. ``An adult can have a hard time, but for a kid it can be even worse.''

Merritt said the company plans to outfit a tractor-trailer with the latest in digital technology and travel across the country to stores, camps and universities, where Nelson will be on hand to provide people with information on how to stay safe on the Internet.

``Lauren will do a great job of making it real for people,'' Merritt said. ``You don't need to be a tech guru to be intelligent and safe when you go on the Internet.''
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