Battling MySpace.com And Teen Naivete

Battling MySpace.com And Teen Naivete
SEATTLE - A 16-year-old we'll call 'Alyssa' gave us a tour of her website at MySpace.com. Her site is innocent enough: a collection of photographs from school, from the prom, from her family vacations, and from outings with her best friends.

"You know, stuff that 16-year-olds really care about, " she joked. "You have like all your friends and you can go in and see who all your friends are."

This network of friends now has more than 50-million users. An estimated 25 percent of them are under the age of 18.

You design your own web-page, post pictures, list information about yourself, and chat with friends and, if you choose, chat and exchange emails with people you've never met in person.

"Well it's fun," said Alyssa while admitting she only talks on-line with people she knows. "It's like a fun way to like talk to people."

Experts say the problem with talking to people this way often starts with teen naivete. Millions of teens aren't just posting pictures they're posting sometimes sexually suggestive pictures of themselves.

They invite the entire internet world to contact them through the email addresses they post on their sites. Sometimes they list where they go to school, where they work, sometimes where they live.

With this kind of information posted for all the world to see numerous experts have called the site a shopping list or menu for perverts and pedophiles.

"They get talking, they exchange cell phone numbers, they've met and bad things have been happening." That's what Middletown, Connecticut Police Sergeant Bill McKenna said just last week. His department is investigating a series of assaults against seven underage girls. The common connection they share is that they met their attackers on MySpace.com.

McKenna says one of the alleged pedophiles, a man who turned out to be much older then he claimed to be on-line, drove more than a thousand miles to meet the girl he solicited on MySpace.com.

Last week near Baltimore, police found the body of 27-year-old Josie Phyllis Brown. She'd been missing since December. 22-year-old college student John Gaumer led them to her body. He's confessed to beating her to death and says they met and arranged their "date" on MySpace.com.

"We're very concerned about the safety of our children," Chip Kimball, PhD told KOMO 4 News. An assistant superintendent for the Lake Washington School District, he is also the chief technology officer who manages the district's 10,000 computers and 50 computer networks used by district staff and their 24,000 students.

"They really live a life of feeling like they can't be hurt," he said of teenagers and their sometimes naïve use of the internet.

So recently, the Lake Washington School District held a series of seminars for teachers and parents. The seminars were led by an internet education and safety group called I-Safe America. Their approach is to educate students and parents about the dangers and about safe practices on the web.

Instead of promoting firewalls, filters, and spying software, they promote knowledge: make the teens and their parents aware that the information they post on-line is viewable by sexual predators, identity thieves, and other trolling criminals.

"We need to keep in mind that the culprit is not the internet," said Kimball. "The culprit is students and their behavior."

"There is a legitimate concern there for the safety of their members," Allan Kush told KOMO 4 News. Kush is part of another internet safety and education group called WiredSafety.org.

Months ago, MySpace.com came to them asking for help with the MySpace site. Recently MySpace has recorded 2 1/2 times as much internet traffic as Google. Faced with millions of new users every month, MySpace wanted WiredSafety's assistance in linking that same safety and education common sense advice on their own website.

"They can't possibly police that many profiles," said Kush who says MySpace does maintain a small team of people whose sole job is to patrol the site and look for people who post pornography or other offensive material. By internal e-mail on the site users can also report material they find offensive.

"They want to do the right thing but they also realize there's a limitation on how much of that right thing they can realistically accomplish," said Kush.

Experts agree that the people who can accomplish the most are parents. Alyssa and her mom, for example, share information about what is on her MySpace site. They also talk about the dangers, about the risk of talking on-line with strangers, and about simple web common sense.

"Keep having conversations with your children about the people who could be out there that could access that information and to be careful what you put on there," said Alyssa's mom Terri.

"I think every community in the country is going to have to deal with this issue," added Kimball. "This is the way that kids communicate, it's the way that they socialize, and it's the way that they live."

Alyssa for one says she already understands the risks but also understands why some teens continue to take on-line risks.

"Your pictures are an invitation and like talking, actually like starting conversation. Then that's another invitation," said Alyssa. "I think we know they're out there, like those kind of people, but we don't actually think it's going to happen to us."

For More Information:

www.wiredsafety.org

www.isafe.org/