Is MySpace the Right Space for Your Children II?
Carol (not her real name), a twenty something single mom, received a very personal revelation of how the popular social network service MySpace.com is being perceived by the media and those who are not part of the site’s fan club.
“For now, parents must be extremely vigilant with their home Internet rules.”
A dedicated employee of five years at a furniture store, Carol was summoned into her boss's office on June 2 of this year.
"I want to give you a chance to confess," her boss said. "I don't have anything to confess. What are you talking about?" replies Carol. Her boss then explains that she has been "stealing company time" by using the Internet for personal purposes. Carol is surprised, as employees were allowed to use company computers for checking personal email in the past.
Then, her boss explains it was her visits to MySpace specifically, that brought him to the conclusion her actions were grounds for dismissal. "My space is a vulgar web site and our customers should not be exposed to such vulgarity," he explains.
During a telephone interview with Carol, she explained to me how she uses MySpace. Her baby's father lives three states away, and she takes advantage of the free service to exchange photographs of their child and keep in touch with each other. Email accounts and instant messaging are just two of the many ways MySpace users can communicate.
She also suggested to her boss that he look at MySpace and at her home page so he could see there was no inappropriate pictures or other content. But from his perspective, the site was littered with pornography, and he didn't want to visit it -- even to verify his employee's story.
Carol is convinced her boss was watching a local newscast a few days earlier when a story was broadcast about how MySpace was utilized by child predators to initiate contact with minors. Having watched this news item, her boss became convinced Carol's actions were not in keeping with store policy.
This young woman's experience and her boss's perception of MySpace are not unusual. With the galactic growth MySpace has experienced comes increased scrutiny, and this particular website is no stranger to media attention that is usually negative. To get an idea of what can happen when social networking goes sour, try this experiment:
Go to Google.com and type "myspace" and "arrested" in the search box. Page after page of news items will appear, and many tell a different tale of illegal activities linked to people who have made use of the site. The incidents range from a bragging marijuana grower who was showing off his wares in the photo section of his page, to the all-to-frequent stories of sexual offenders who prey upon younger members and -- as this story illustrates from April 2006 -- it's not always men. [http://www.tennessean.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060412/NEWS03/60412003]
Stories like these have led not only parents and schools, but also employers, to ban MySpace from their computers. Yet, in its most basic form, using MySpace is really no different than constructing your own webpage and posting it on any other Internet server. You place pictures, text and whatever other items you want, and open the doors to the cyberspace world.
However, the innate mission of this particular website (and its competitors) is to encourage interaction between members -- thus the reason it's referred to as "social networking." It's assumed those who join MySpace are looking for opportunities to connect. With a high proportion of young visitors, this makes the site an attractive target for abuse from those who lie about their true identity.
This falsification of information is the crux of the problem for these websites, resulting in Congress becoming involved after Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado democrat, proposed legislation in April requiring all Internet service providers to retain activity logs. Since then she, and other members of the House of Representatives, are asking that social networking sites be required to maintain similar records.
At a hearing on June 28, 2006, representatives from Fox Interactive Media (the owners of MySpace.com) and competitors Facebook.com and Xanga.com participated in a Congressional hearing that took a hard look at what these sites are and will be doing to prevent young people from being exploited. (To hear the proceedings, go to this page and look for the appropriate links: http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Hearings/06282006hearing1955/hearing.htm#List)
During the hearing, politicians were convinced these sites were not doing enough to verify age, with DeGette commenting that they "can do algorithms that will go beyond just the date of birth that they register, to start to weed out some of the underage users."
It sounds promising, but will we ever be able to create an automated computer program that can thwart a determined 13-year-old who wants to register as an adult? Even more important, can we find a way to keep a perverted adult from using these services -- and the many other loopholes of the Internet -- to lure and possibly destroy the lives of young participants?
For now, parents must be extremely vigilant with their home Internet rules. This includes finding out if your child is using MySpace, Facebook, Xanga, or one of the other social networking sites. Obviously, if your kids are concerned you might ban their privileges, you may not get an honest answer. To find out, you may need to resort to what many parents have done, and create your own MySpace account so you can search the site. Using the search functions, you can look up your child's school and age range. Yet, unless you lie about your age, MySpace's security protocols won't let you see information from members who are under 16-years-old, putting parents in a difficult situation.
In the end, you will have to decide if your teen (MySpace doesn't allow any members under the age of 14... assuming they don't lie) has the maturity to utilize social networking sites safely and securely. Considering the millions using these services, serious incidents are relatively few. However, high odds mean nothing when it's your child who becomes involved with a dangerous offender.
At the very least, make use of MySpace's safety tips [http://collect.myspace.com/misc/safetytips.html] and read them with your teen. Ensure their profile information reveals nothing about them that can allow someone to track them down. Finally, if you decide you want your child's profile removed from the site, check this link http://collect.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=misc.faq&faqQuestionId=38 for instructions on how to do so.
Certainly the Internet offers some exciting ways to enhance your social life, but for kids and perhaps even adults, the best way to meet new friends may still be through good 'ol fashioned face-to-face communications.
Some additional points to consider about MySpace:
Most social networking sites are making an effort to maintain security. MySpace recently hired a former federal prosecutor as their security head, and they have allocated the resources of 100 employees to help make sure members are of "legal" age (in the case of MySpace, 14 or older) and staying within the site's rules and regulations. However, with 250,000 new members per day, the task is enormous.
Young people are innately trusting of others. When creating a profile on MySpace, users can include what school they attend and many other items of information that will make them a target for abuse. Pictures are also a common and encouraged element of a member's identification. You may want to encourage your teen to use an picture of their pet or some other non-identifying image to protect their privacy.
MySpace prohibits pornographic content, and will delete member accounts if they break this rule. However, it is easy to locate many "questionable" images and videos that will still be unsuitable for many family's standards. Often these images portray teen girls in revealing clothing. (During my research, I also had a very provocative advertisement for a questionable dating service appear on a visit to the site as an unregistered user -- meaning it would appear to anyone of any age.)
Another way people abuse these sites is to create false profiles that claim to be representing someone else. This often involves misrepresentation of school teachers and administrators. MySpace offers a special form for these situations, accessible here: http://collect.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=misc.faq&faqQuestionId=39
If you have Internet filtering software, check to see if it blocks access to these sites. You may have to change the filtering categories or specifically enter the site into the blocked sites list.