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Keeping teenage girls off dangerous websites

March 7, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Like most teenage girls, Hannah Black and her friends love to check their Facebook pages and post photos.

But one day, one of Black's friends was brutally attacked online.

"They were making up rumors about her, calling her a whore, saying she was ugly and she wasn't pretty and no one should like her and no one does like her," Black said.

"Here, this beautiful, smart, intelligent, well-rounded young girl being sexually harassed and taunted at every turn," said Black's father, Sam Black.

Besides being the father of a teenage girl, Black is an Internet safety professional.

He knows first hand what dangers lurk online for teen girls.

"Body image, sexualization of women and girls, cyber bullying," he said. "All these things can play out on the Internet."

Michele Borba, author of the "Big Book of Parenting Solutions," says while sites may post rules against bullying or harassing, not all teens follow them.

"There are a number of new sites that look like they're harmless, but are actually teaching our girls very, very vicious lifestyle changes," Borba said.

"Formspring is one of the new kinds of websites that looks like a social network that is popping up online for our daughters," Borba said. "It looks tame enough. But once they log on, what it actually encourages instead is to send vicious notes toward one another in an anonymous nature."

Formspring.com said in an e-mail that they take safety and privacy seriously and have developed practices for blocking inappropriate content.

The people behind Formspring say they're developing more tools for a safer online experience. For example, all questions sent to Formspring stay in a private inbox until a member responds.

But experts say social networking sites aren't the only types that raise concern.

There are new online games where teens create and play highly-sexualized characters. One of them is missmimbo.com

"If you earn a certain amount of points in life, you can even buy yourself a sugar daddy," Borba said. "Totally unhealthy and you do not want your daughters in any part of it."

Then there are the websites that promote anorexia and bulimia with photographs of frail and skinny models and step-by-step "tutorials."

"Specific directions on how to purge, how to purchase diet pills and it is doing damage," Borba said. "Stanford University found that 96 percent of girls who are anorexic learned a lot of their eating habits on those sites."

So how can parents keep kids off potentially dangerous websites?

They should invest in parental control software and monitor their teen's online history.

They can also do Google searches on their kid's full name to see if anything comes up.

A walk by to see if they abruptly stop as they're online is also a good idea.

Finally, they should take the time to get Internet savvy. It could make all the difference in their daughter's life.

"You need to step up to the plate," Borba said. "You need to monitor because we're raising our children in a tough world."