- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

Delicious 247 wants to be your friend. So do Foxy and DaPimp. So does Tasha, who says she leaves for U.S. Marines boot camp in September, but for now, you can find a photo of her in a miniskirt in a sexually suggestive pose.

Welcome to MySpace, the most popular Internet social networking site. At last estimate, more than 76 million people are MySpace users — that’s up from 6 million 20 months ago and growing by about a quarter-million new users a day. It is a place where many teens and young adults post pictures of themselves, talk about their favorite bands and hobbies, run video clips and write blogs.

Teens can get a free Web page, post a page all about themselves and receive e-mail requests from people wanting to be MySpace “friends.” Sure, you can connect with classmates — but with millions of members, you never know who wants to be your friend or if someone is, in fact, who he or she claims to be.

At its best, MySpace is a worldwide bulletin board to connect with other like-minded people. At its worst, the site — and more than 100 smaller, similar social networking sites — has been called everything from online narcissism to a magnet for child predators.

Consider this:

mIn September, a 16-year-old Long Island girl was abducted and molested after messaging with a 37-year-old man she had met on MySpace. The man tracked her down after she had posted her workplace on her page.

mIn March, two Connecticut men were arrested on charges they had had sexual contact with minors (ages 11 and 14) they had met on MySpace.

mRep. Michael Fitzpatrick, Pennsylvania Republican, recently introduced the Deleting Online Predators Act, which would make social networking sites inaccessible from public schools and libraries nationwide. Meanwhile, most Washington-area school districts already have banned the sites from school computers.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children receives about 50 complaints weekly about adults trying to entice children into inappropriate relationships, says John Shehan, Cybertipline program manager for the Virginia-based group.

Meanwhile, MySpace recently hired Hemanshu Nigam, a former security executive at Microsoft and a former federal prosecutor against Internet child exploitation, as its chief security officer.

The site has instituted a minimum age of 14. It is hard to verify and police the age requirement, but MySpace deletes profiles if it knows of an underage user. More than 250,000 underage profiles have been deleted so far, the company says. Users who admit to being younger than 15 can only be viewed by people they invite to be on their friends list.

“From Day One, MySpace has been committed to maintaining a safe and well-lit community for our members,” MySpace Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Jeff Berman said in a statement to The Washington Times. “The hiring of Hemanshu Nigam as our chief security officer is yet another indication of how seriously we take our responsibility to maintain a safe and well-lit community for our members.

“Federal law allows anyone 13 or older to have a profile on a social networking site,” Mr. Berman adds. “MySpace has gone an extra step and set the minimum age at 14. We are constantly evaluating new technology and looking for the best systems and practices in enforcing our community’s rules.”

‘Not inherently bad’

Larry Magid, co-director of Safekids.com and Blogsafety.com, Web sites that promote online safety for children and teens, says social networking sites can do a lot of good — promote HTML skills, encourage free expression and help maintain friendships with camp or school friends with whom one might lose touch.

“These sites are not inherently bad,” says Mr. Magid, whose sites feature a guide on how to safely use MySpace and maximize its privacy features. “They are like kitchen knives — they do more good than bad, but you can misuse them.”

Mr. Magid points out that the vast majority of incidents related to MySpace have been minor, but the major ones get the bulk of attention. One way to cut down on incidents of either form is to teach teens about staying safe online.

“One common myth is that there is a dirty old man online pretending to be 16, and he is going to snatch [a girl] away,” Mr. Magid says. “The vast majority of research shows that at some point, most predators have been honest about their age. A lot of this has to do with educating kids about the dangers of what appears to be an innocent relationship.”

Less troubling but more prevalent on social networking sites is the raunchiness, Mr. Magid says. Though most sites prohibit nudity, they don’t forbid the explicit photos that are abundant. What might seem flirtatious to the poser can be seen as an invitation by a creep.

“Raunchy behavior does not excuse the predator,” Mr. Magid says, “but it certainly increases the risk.”

Think, then click

Parry Aftab, a lawyer and Internet safety advocate, agrees that parents need to learn about social networking and lay some ground rules for their children.

“Bad things happen,” she says, “but in 100 percent of the cases, kids have gone willingly or invited [potential predators] in. That means that these stories are preventable. Don’t go to meet someone you met online. If you do go, bring 10 sumo-sized friends. Also, don’t pose nude or send provocative photos. Think before you click.”

Mr. Shehan says social networking sites are doing a good job of adding safety features to their sites. He says MySpace is safer than it was six months ago.

However, he also says there is a disconnect among many teens between what is public and what is private. Many times teens will post something on MySpace for anyone to see but would be upset if their parents read it.

“I tell them not to put anything online that they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying in front of the class,” he says.

That disconnect — just take a look at the pictures and posts about teens drinking, bragging about drug use or listing sexual conquests — can lead to all sorts of trouble, Ms. Aftab says. What teens often don’t understand is that the Internet is a new permanent record.

“Some of these girls aren’t really drunken [tramps],” she says. “They are just playing drunken [tramps] on MySpace. They don’t realize that what they post online stays online forever. Now colleges and jobs are checking these sites. So don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your parents or the principal to see.”

Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation and the mother of three teenagers, says creating Web sites with provocative images is an example of teens mimicking what they see in our increasingly bold culture.

Mrs. Hagelin calls MySpace “a porn store.”

“It is a not a place where you would want a 13-year-old to go,” says Mrs. Hagelin, author of the book “Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad.”

Keeping children safe online starts with parenting, Mrs. Hagelin says. That means understanding what a social networking site is, learning how it works and who has access to your teens’ information online. She also recommends installing a safety filter on home computers, which will block out social networking sites and keep teens’ information private.

“I believe modern technology has the potential to be a great liberator,” she says. “It can be a wonderful tool. But you wouldn’t give a teen a car without a seat belt; why would you give them the Internet without a safety filter?”

Later this month, representatives from the major social networking sites will meet at a summit in New York to discuss best safety practices.

“Trying to throw the Internet out with MySpace is not going to work,” Ms. Aftab says. “In reality, children can be safe if they understand technology and the rules involved. Parents need to know what their kids are doing. The networks need to have self-regulation. We can solve the problem.”

Staying safe online:

• Judge whether your child is mature enough to be visiting social networking sites. While teens might be there to post about their fondness for horses or “American Idol,” know that they will see pages meant for mature audiences.

• Learn how the site works. Are there rules? Age restrictions? Can a teen’s page be made private or accessible by invitation only so you know who is viewing your child’s info?

• Teach your child to recognize “grooming” by a potential predator. Grooming is basically manipulation — the process predators use to gain trust with teens. This can be in the form of flattery (“Have you considered modeling?”), sympathy (“I fight with my parents, too. Let’s meet and talk about it.”) or common interests (“Really? I like Green Day, too. Maybe we can see a concert together.”)

• Remind users not to put personal images or their real names on their pages. Also, leave out their school’s name, their grade or where they will be at a certain time or date.

• Find out which of your children’s friends have MySpace pages. Friends might be posting pictures and information about their friends, so your children may end up identified online anyway.

• Know your child’s password and screen names.

• Keep the computer in a central location in the house.

Sources: John Shehan, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children; Internet safety expert Larry Magid.

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