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Caution Needed on the Information Superhighway

A young stockbroker, who once belonged to a youth group I led back in the 1980s, refers to Facebook as “Internet crack cocaine.” He might be right, especially in the first month of “addiction” when there is a frenzy of activity: renewing old acquaintances, looking over friends’ messages and photo albums and trying to learn how to manage all the tricks and options possible in setting up your personal account.

Not long ago, I was a non-Facebook elitist. When friends constantly encouraged me to open an account, I resisted. I felt I had neither the time nor the inclination to play in this cyber-world of triviality. But after an international summer trip, I thought it might be a good place to share many of my pictures. It wasn’t long before I, too, took my place at the feeding trough of constant informational supply, keeping myself current on the banal daily existence of my circle of friends. I had become a cyber-junkie.

For those unaware, Facebook (and a similar service called MySpace) are personal Internet billboards where individuals become their own promotional agents by creating Web pages where they can send each other messages, share personal information, photos and favorite movies and books, post notes and essays and join a host of other groups, invitations, services and causes. There is also a feature called “status” where you can post a sentence on what you are currently doing, thinking or feeling.

While you can make your account public (meaning all members can view your page), most opt for a private account allowing a limited list of approved members (your friends) who can view all your posted information.

Still, this provides a false sense of security. Last year, parents of teenagers shuddered at the death of 14-year-old Megan Meier, who committed suicide after being jilted by a MySpace boyfriend who, in actuality, was the mother of another 14-year-old girl in the neighborhood and Megan’s rival.

Other cases of cyber-bullying have escalated into more severe challenges for school authorities and government officials. One health professional is warning young people that information they post about use of drugs or sexual license could harm future employment opportunities. Lawmakers from around the country are trying to catch up and get laws on the books to guide the tricky balance between freedom of speech and the protection of an individual’s reputation and safety.

Once, we just taught our children to look both ways before crossing the street. The busy intersections available on the Internet are proving just as dangerous. While none of us would want to go back to the horse and buggy, we also have learned the importance of safety precautions.

Just because we sit in front of personal screens in the privacy of our offices and homes is no reason to believe the whole world is not also watching. They used to say the eye was the window to the soul. In the transparent and accessible world of the Internet, it is wise to consider: You are what you post and your monitor is a two-way street to your deepest and perhaps truest self.

Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.