My Turn: Protecting our children must be a top priority

Posted: Sunday, October 07, 2007

Last month, a 15-year-old from Juneau made national headlines after she boarded an airplane and flew to Seattle without her parents' knowledge or permission. Of additional concern, she was attempting to meet someone she had encountered on the Internet. While this particular incident ended without injury, it exposed a serious loophole for air travelers between the ages of 13 and 17, and served as a reminder of the potential dangers children face on the Internet.

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As a father of six and a grandfather of 11, I was shocked to hear about this event. As a U.S. senator, I recognize that industry and Congress can and should work together to limit similar events from happening in the future. I plan to work with my colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee to develop effective policies to increase child safety.

Such solutions should start with consistent policies for air carriers and their passengers, regardless of age. Many airlines require passengers between the ages of 5 and 12 to participate in the "Unaccompanied Minor Service" program if they are traveling without a parent or guardian. But no such requirements prevent passengers between the ages of 13 and 17 from boarding a plane without identification or parental permission. In addition, the Transportation Security Administration only requires identification for passengers who are 18 years of age and older. Younger passengers need no more than a boarding pass to go through screening to board a plane.

In relation to a recent hearing held by the Senate Commerce Committee, I submitted a question to the Department of Transportation and the airline representatives about their policies on teenage air travel. I plan to compare the policies regarding underage children of different airlines, figure out what works, and encourage effective voluntary standards across the industry.

The August incident also highlights the issue of improved Internet safety for children. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in seven children between the ages of 10 and 17 has received a sexual solicitation or approach over the Internet. Recent news accounts report that two men, in separate occurrences, were arrested in the Lower 48 while traveling to Alaska to meet, in person, children they had initially met online.

To address this alarming trend, the Senate Commerce Committee recently passed Senate Bill 1965, "Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act," a bipartisan bill that I introduced with Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). The legislation would require any school which receives federal funding to offer Internet safety education on issues such as social networking, chat rooms, and cyberbullying. The bill also requires the creation of a working group, composed of representatives from federal agencies and others, to identify and encourage technologies and initiatives which could help parents shield their children from unwanted contact or content. The Internet is a valuable resource for a child's education. But it is vital that we educate our children about how to use the Internet safely.

By developing a multilayered approach to child safety - online and offline, in both the real and virtual worlds - children can be safe as they learn and grow.

• Ted Stevens is a longtime Alaska senator.



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