The teenager had chosen a screen name guaranteed to get attention -- "Niceass Nikki."

"She might as well say, 'Come hurt me,'" says Linda Criddle, senior product manager for child safety at Microsoft. "Before she wrote another word, she made herself a target."

Taking a cyber-stroll through the social networking site can be a jaw-dropping experience. Alongside the photos of fresh-faced teens hanging out with their friends, you'll find ones like the sleek, blonde 15-year-old with the come-hither look, cradling four bottles of beer and a pack of cigarettes.

Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook (used more by college-age students) have become wildly popular. At last count, MySpace boasted close to 70 million subscribers. Teens and twenty-somethings love connecting with people their own age and expressing themselves through words, photos, graphics and video.

Even the shyest teen can create a new bolder persona online. The trouble comes when they become targets for sexual predators. The news stories are frightening: the 15-year-old Issaquah girl raped by a 22-year-old man she met online, the New Jersey 14-year-old who told friends she had met a man on MySpace before she was found dead in a trash bin in April.

"It's a target-rich environment and it feels anonymous," says Sgt. Leanne Shirey of the Seattle Police Department. "They (predators) are afraid to hang around the school yard and get caught; they're not afraid to hang around the cyber playground."

Parents and others whose worst fears are confirmed by stories like this have welcomed a move by to hire its first chief security officer, a former federal prosecutor and Microsoft Corp. executive. However, Shirey says, facing this threat begins with parents. The 27-year police veteran is founder and director of The Internet and Your Child, a national Internet crime prevention organization. Her advice to parents: Don't get scared; get educated. Tell your teen: "I trust you but I love you more."

Criddle shares that view. "You cannot educate your child without educating yourself," says Criddle, author of Look Both Ways -- A Guide to Internet Safety due out this summer.

First, Criddle says, determine your family values around content, your level of risk tolerance and the level of interaction you want for your teen. Ask yourself and your kids: "What am I sharing and who am I sharing it with?" Familiarize yourself with the technology by creating a social networking site of your own. Get your teen's help if you need it. Then, tell your teen you're going to look at her site in 24 hours.

When the time comes, sit down with your teen and go over the site together. "Safety isn't something you do to a teenager; it's something you do with them," Criddle says. After you look at her site, find someone else's and point out the problems. Then, tell your teen you'll want to check the site with her periodically without warning. If she refuses, she loses access to the computer.

What are the red flags on your teen's site? Any personal information you would not share with a stranger -- her name, her school and home address, of course. But look beyond the obvious. Does she talk about the schedule for soccer practice or the party on Saturday night? Look at the photos. Does the T-shirt have the name of her school or soccer team? Is the house number visible? What is she wearing? "If you wouldn't walk down the street in that outfit, why put it on the Internet?" Shirey points out.

She suggests that parents also lock up the webcam and disable the microphone on the computer, especially during sleepovers. "The girls will stand up and flash the webcam," she says. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen this."

Predators are not the only danger lurking around these sites. Identity thieves are beginning to target young victims who discover the problem years later when they apply for credit of their own. Shirey and Criddle recommend doing an annual credit check for your child. In addition, teens and college students are finding, to their amazement, that users of their sites can include college administrators, coaches, prospective employers and others whose approval they need.

Shirey tells the story of the exemplary student being interviewed for admission to a private college. The admissions officer was impressed with her grades, her application and her poise in the interview. But the student was horrified by what she heard next: "Now, let's go to MySpace and find out what you're really like."

Elaine Bowers lives in Seattle with her husband and 14-year-old twin daughters.

More information on Internet safety

The Internet and Your Child (IYC) was founded in 1997 in the Seattle area by Seattle Police Sgt. Leanne Shirey, former detective with the NW Regional Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The organization now has 300 training teams in 27 states providing free 7-hour classes for parents on internet safety. To find out about classes in the Seattle area, contact:

Linda Criddle, senior product manager for child safety at Microsoft, has written a book, Look Both Ways, A Guide for Internet Safety, scheduled for publication in July. According to Criddle, a mother of four, proceeds will be donated to charity.

More contact information for reporting Internet crime:

  • Internet Child Sex Crimes: NW Regional Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force
    c/o Seattle Police Department Vice Section
    1519 12th Ave., Seattle, WA 98122
  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
  • Internet Fraud: Internet Fraud Complaint Center

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