App promotes savvy Web use among kids

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A new tool for keeping young teens and pre-teens safe while using social media has been launched using simulated situations the youths might face in their daily school lives.

Called BeSeen, the free mobile application was developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Information Networking Institute (INI) and the national nonprofit Web Wise Kids. The app becomes available today for Apple devices and will be available on Android-powered systems in December.

INI Director Dena Tsamitis said the idea came after she happened to be sitting at the same lunch table with Judi Warren, president of Web Wise Kids, at a Washington, D.C., conference in June.

Given Web Wise Kids' mission, and INI's existing cyber safety programs, "we said, 'Why not put our heads together and see what we can do?" said Ms. Tsamitis, who holds a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

BeSeen was developed over this summer, with CMU employing illustrators, multi-media specialists, instructional designers, technical writers and game designers working on software with the typical 11- to 14-year-old in mind.

What they came up with is a video game version of social networking in which the user faces and responds to different situations that address issues from bullying to keeping their personal information secure.

The player starts by creating a profile, just as he would for a social networking site such as Facebook; then he goes through a condensed version of a school year.

The only requirements for a player to use BeSeen is that he or she must be able to read and operate a computer without help -- a standard that has become something of a moving target, Ms. Tsamitis said.

Five years ago, students in middle to upper elementary grades would fit those criteria, she said. Today, there are kindergartners and first graders using computers by themselves. "Young children have become much more computer savvy."

It doesn't matter that social networking sites typically require that users are at least 13 years of age, she said. All it usually takes to get in is fudging your birth date when signing up. While parents may closely monitor computer use in their home, that won't prevent their child from going online at a friend's house. INI estimates there are 7.5 million preteens using social networking sites in the U.S. alone.

"We felt it was critical to address this audience since they are very active," Ms. Tsamitis said.

However savvy these children are with computers, she said, BeSeen intends to protect them from the worst kind of life lessons.

For example, children may not realize that posting about the family's planned Disney vacation is also telling everyone that the house will be empty for days and possibly vulnerable to burglary. Or that simply repeating someone else's inappropriate post can have implications.

Other scenarios include responding to bullying tactics, even if they're not aimed at you.

"Kids have to become aware of the implications of everything they do online and the implications of what happens if they don't," she said.

There are physical safety concerns addressed as well in the program. For example, few children -- and not many adults -- likely realize that the posted photo of yourself might also give information about your location.

While sexting -- the posting of sexually-charged texts or photos -- becomes a public topic whenever there's some tragedy attached to it, Ms. Tsamitis believes the practice has not abated despite the possible long-term consequences. Not even congressmen are immune to those lapses in judgment.

"We're trying to reinforce having kids protect their online reputation and protect their privacy. Your online reputation is kind of there for eternity. For kids, that's something hard to understand."


Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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