Seven years ago, 13-year-old Lauren Nelson and a few friends entered an Internet chat room during a sleepover. Within a week, an online predator was e-mailing one of them lurid photos.
"We were chatting with people we didn't know, which was our first mistake, and someone asked for our personal information," she said. "A week later, he sent some inappropriate pictures to one of my friends. We were all scared, and told our parents, who contacted the authorities."
Now Nelson, who is the reigning Miss America, is the centerpiece of a new kid-friendly Internet browser designed to keep children away from dangerous online sites and contacts.
The Miss America Kid-Safe Web Browser is to debut on Thursday. The free download includes blocking mechanisms that have existed for years.
But it also features an animated Nelson who walks kids through their online experience, advising them about Internet safety and spouting random trivia: "There are twice as many kangaroos as people in Australia!"
She'll read their e-mail out loud and can be programmed by Mom or Dad to remind children to do their homework, feed the fish or clean their room.
Nelson, a 20-year-old from Oklahoma, made children's Internet security her main issue during the most recent pageant because of the disturbing online encounter she and her friends had as 13-year-olds.
"That was definitely an eye-opening experience," she said. "We never knew the Internet or chatting could get to that point."
The browser permits access to 10,318 Web sites, all of which were prescreened and determined to be kid-friendly by the Miss America Organization and the Children's Educational Network, which developed the software for it.
It has a feature enabling parents to lock the computer and prohibit Internet access with any other browser, and it lets parents add sites to the approved list.
When a surfing session begins, the theme song "There she is, Miss America" plays as an animated version of Nelson walks forward on the screen in a gown, complete with a tiara that glistens every few seconds.
The image floats around the screen as her arm and hand do the sweeping pageant wave.
"Hi, it's your Miss America, Lauren Nelson," the image says. "Let's hang out and surf the Web!"
Try going to an unapproved site, and the animated Nelson gently rebukes, "This Web site is not on the master list. Please ask Mom or Dad to add this site for you."
She also offers reminders like "Don't forget to e-mail your parents now and then!"
She also gushes, "I love getting e-mail!" or "Great! No spam!" when the e-mail icon is clicked.
When the "Exit" icon is clicked, Miss America coos, "Buh-BYE!"
Greg Writer, chief executive officer of the Escondido, Calif.-based Children's Educational Network and a former investment banker, started the kid-friendly software company after his own online nightmare.
"When my daughter was 7 years old, she typed her name into a search engine online. Her name is Candace, and she clicked on it and got taken to a porn site," he said. "She was sitting right next to my wife at the computer, and she said, 'Mommy, why are all these people showing off their naked butts?'
A premium version of the kid-safe Miss America Web browser that includes e-mail and educational components costs $4.95 a month.
Writer said about 10 percent of those who download the company's various other software have subscribed to the pay service, a ratio he expects to continue with the Miss America browser.
Like most Internet safety experts, Nelson opposes kids or teens having computers in their bedrooms.
"Keep it in a high-traffic area of the house where people are constantly going past," she recommended.
She says parents don't need to be Internet-savvy to keep their kids safe online, just involved.
"Just by asking questions and monitoring what your kids are doing, you can keep them safe," she said.