The cautionary story of Allison Stokke, the 18-year-old pole vaulter from Newport Beach, Calif., who recently became the poster child for the dangers of internet media sharing, has led students, parents, and schools across the country to ask, “How can we prevent this from happening?”

It should have been harmless. A five-time national record-holding athlete was competing at a meet, as she had done many times before. A track-and-field journalist snapped her picture and posted it as part of his report on a California track web site–not an uncommon occurrence.

As first reported in the Washington Post, this benign action has catapulted Stokke’s athletic body–not her athletic talent–to unsolicited fame and recognition. Once the journalist’s photo hit the blogosphere, it was reproduced and reposted all across the internet with blinding speed. As a result, Stokke has become the victim of lewd blog discussions, thousands of MySpace messages, a YouTube video, a fake Facebook profile, and an unofficial fan web site.

To prevent this sort of thing from happening to others, Parry Aftab, executive director of wiredsafety.org, recommends taking action as soon as possible. “Google your name, see what information is provided about you, then set alerts,” Aftab advises. Using alerts (located under Google Services and Tools), Google will send an eMail message every time a keyword–in this case, someone’s name–is mentioned in a web site. This way, at least individuals can contact those web sites and have a chance to fight back.

Legally, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), no web site can post information about children who are under the age of 13 without parental consent. Yet Stokke is 18.

“Perhaps, and only perhaps,” Aftab says, “she can be covered under the Rights of Privacy and Publicity in Interactive Media in the state of California,” which states that any use of pictures or media cannot be used for commercial profit; however, these rights pertain mainly to celebrities. For his part, the track-and-field journalist has threatened to file suit against the blog site under standard copyright infringement laws.

Many school leaders are wondering how to stop such cases of internet frenzy and new-media sensationalism before they even begin. Jennifer Krell, head of the information technology department for Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, explains that her district is implementing an internet safety curriculum in accordance with a 2006 Virginia state law directing public schools to teach online safety to their students, employees, and communities. Along with the basic curriculum, Fairfax County will integrate classroom instruction, group discussions, instructional videos, and guest speakers.

“We’re starting as early as kindergarten, teaching tips like ‘watch your internet profile’ and ‘be careful what you let others see about you,'” Krell states.

Fairfax County also has specific policies for its web sites, such an opt-out form, with which “parents can request that their child’s photos not be used on any web site or print publication. If a child in a photo is identified, it is by first name only,” says Krell.

Aftab advises that schools go one step further, requiring all event attendees with a camera to register with the school, which “includes parents, too,” she says. “Give them passes saying it’s OK and that they’ve registered with the school.” By requiring such registration, administrators can set stricter guidelines regarding the use of online photos.

As of press time, some sites featuring Stokke have made amends. Matt Ufford’s WithLeather.com, the first blog that featured Stokke’s photos, has agreed to take down the photos as soon as Stokke or her parents contact him. The unofficial fan web site, www.allisonstokke.com, has shut down, stating, “Sorry for having contributed to the unwanted attention, Allison.” The fake Facebook profile has been deleted by Facebook staff, and MySpace users seem to be restricting their messages to a designated fan page.

Yet Aftab acknowledges that as long as there are photographers, there are going to be “innocent [pictures used] for non-innocent purposes.”

There is hope, however. More schools are learning and teaching about internet safety, more parents are keeping track of their children’s internet activities, and more students are becoming aware of internet risks. For example, a recent survey commissioned by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 58 percent of parents say they review text content of teen chatrooms and instant messages; and, according to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 66 percent of teens who have online profiles restrict access to these profiles, while 46 percent post fake information to counter predators.

Also, web sites are offering solutions to pressing problems with internet safety, such as wiredsafety.org, which is planning this fall to invite schools to join a pilot program to learn more about the online risk and safety of their students.

Even with students more guarded, parents on alert, and schools implementing new guidelines, perhaps internet community decency will prove to be the vital difference-maker.

“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” Stokke, who was awarded an athletic scholarship to the University of California, told the Post. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”

Links:

Wiredsafety.org

http://www.wiredsafety.org

Fairfax County Public Schools

http://www.fcps.k12.va.us

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

http://www.ncmec.org

Pew Internet & American Life Project

http://www.pewinternet.org