TEENANGELS to the Rescue! Web-savvy youth teaching peers about online computer safety

Thursday, July 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

They might not be faster than a speedy cable modem, or even able to leap a row of computer terminals in a single bound. But their mission does sound a little like a job for a superhero.

They are the Teenangels, a growing team of young volunteers worldwide who _ armed with Internet savvy and a little common sense _ protect their peers online.

Their biggest goal is to teach young Web surfers how they can avoid criminals who prey on children by using e-mail, online chat rooms and even instant messages to contact them.

``Even if we got one more parent to not be afraid to let their child on the Internet _ or saved one child from a predator, that would be good. But we're obviously going for a lot more than one,'' says Brittany, a 17-year-old Teenangel who will be a senior this fall at an all-girls Catholic school in Demarest, N.J.

That's where the first team of Teenangels got their start two years ago with the help of Parry Aftab, a New York lawyer who specializes in security and privacy law.

Since 1995, Aftab's organization _ Cyberangels.org _ has trained thousands of adult volunteers to do everything from field questions about Web harassment to monitor chat rooms for inappropriate online advances.

Adding youth as messengers ``is a great way to teach kids who don't listen to adults as much as they listen to other kids,'' Aftab says. Besides, she adds, young people often know more about the Internet than adults.

By year's end, Aftab says there will be about 350 Teenangels worldwide _ from Mexico to India to Australia. New teams are being trained this summer in such cities as Houston, Washington, Los Angeles and San Jose, Calif.

They learn about mistakes young people make when approached online by strangers (most often, they are too trusting) and get updates on anti-predator laws from state police, the FBI and officials from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The Teenangels then spread the messages at schools and on their Web site. They're also looking for funding to produce a video for distribution at schools, libraries and video stores.

``These aren't just techie, geeky kids,'' says William Desa, an FBI special agent in Newark, N.J., and Teenangel trainer who specializes in crimes against children. ``These kids are smart, articulate role models.''

They are also cautious, illustrated by the fact that Brittany and the other Teenangels speak only on the condition that their last names not be used _ information they'd like to keep out of the wrong hands.

Indeed, stories of online youth harassment are common.

Alexis, a 16-year-old Teenangel on the New Jersey team, tells the story of a friend who was shocked to find her school photo posted on a Web site with her name, age and favorite sport. The culprit turned out to be a fellow student.

And it can get much scarier.

Katie, a 16-year-old from Houston who'll soon train to be a Teenangel, tells how _ at age 12 _ she discovered that the supposed 16-year-old online ``boyfriend'' who persuaded her to send nude photos was actually a married man in his 40s from Utah.

He's now in jail. And Katie's using her story to alert children and teens to one of the basics of Internet safety: never give out personal information that could help lead someone you meet online to your doorstep.

A survey conducted in May by Disney Online found that more than 90 percent of children who responded said they knew not to reveal their name, address and phone number to online strangers.

But Teenangels say that's not enough. They warn against even giving out seemingly harmless information _ your sports team's name or where you work _ that could help a savvy predator find you.

``You may think you know who you're talking to, but you really don't,'' says Hector, a 16-year-old who's volunteered to join the Teenangel team at his San Jose high school.

The Teenangels aren't the only young people who've taken on the cause.

Eighteen-year-old Taryn Pream, for example, created a safety brochure as a Girl Scout project after a fellow student at her Thief River Falls, Minn., school sent her anonymous threatening e-mails and pornographic pictures. She also testified for a bill _ now a new law _ in her home state that makes online harassment a crime.

Pream, who's spoken at more than 150 schools, says she's glad the Teenangels' ranks are growing because young people ``need all the help we can get.''