Puritan Board Graduate
Article for parents:
Article published Feb 13, 2006
Teens' MySpace Web site a boon for 'predators'
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says on its Web site that one in five children who use the Internet have been solicited sexually. It cautions young people and their parents not to post any personal identifying information, including photographs, which could be used by an Internet predator to physically locate them.
That opinion is seconded heartily by Montpelier's school resource officer, Cpl. Mark Moody, who has raised concerns about how students use the popular Web site MySpace.com.
Moody says MySpace "is an absolute smorgasbord for predators, at a touch of a keyboard, to zone in on kids."
MySpace is a free networking/relationship site especially popular with teens, who use it to create a personal profile using digital photos, personal writing, answers to questionnaires, lists of favorite music and other personal information. It has now evolved into the world's fifth largest Web site, with more than 54 million users. Research by comScore Media Metrix places it fourth by total page views - 17.6 billion in December, behind only sites from Yahoo Inc., Time Warner Inc./AOL and Microsoft Corp. Google was sixth, with 7 billion.
That growth means its potential to be misused has grown dramatically as well.
Lt. Mark Lauer of the Vermont State Police Computer Crimes Unit says that MySpace is now the "most problematic" Web site. The unit has received numerous calls from parents who are concerned about inappropriate profiles that feature young girls in suggestive poses. Lauer says that over a single week in late January, the unit has received "at least five calls about inappropriate or illegal actions by under-aged Internet users."
Lauer says that, because of the number of different police departments, it is hard to know how many incidences of Internet stalking of teens by older predators have actually occurred in Vermont. "At this point it's mostly calls from concerned parents," he says.
But Sandy Everitt, assistant attorney general and director of the civil rights unit of the Vermont Attorney General's Office, says, "It's just a matter of time before we see incidents of Internet predators striking in Vermont. It's a matter of the volume of users. It's like credit card fraud. At first we didn't see it in Vermont, but as more people got credit cards we started to see it."
On a national level, there are many cases that offer parents and their children plenty of reason for caution and concern about the use of MySpace. There are numerous cases of Internet predators who used MySpace and other online networking sites to find victims.
In January, in Lafayette, La., a 16-year-old girl was attacked by a 37-year-old man who read her profile on MySpace, and tracked her down at her after-school job.
In September, in Vienna, Va., a 17-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University freshman was murdered by a man after her MySpace blog led him directly to her.
Last March, a 33-year-old Hughson, Calif., firefighter was arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old boy he met on MySpace.
In a bizarre case also in March, a Colorado man was caught in a "sting" operation, arrested, and later committed suicide. The man was searching the Internet to lure an 8-year-old girl to have sex with him and then kill him.
The Web site has had considerable national media attention. The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek and many other publications have all done stories on MySpace and the television shows "20/20" and "Dateline" have also aired segments about the Web site.
The stories are not just about the risks that predators may pose to naÃ¯ve teens who post personal information. The impersonal nature and perceived freedom of the Internet also prompts teens to use it for everything from pranks to Internet bullying, intimidation or cyber insults. According to news reports, three Louisiana honor students were suspended and arrested after one created a "biggest queer" site targeting a fellow student, who retaliated by launching a graphically violent site directed at his so-called "prep" schoolmates.
Lt. Lauer says that he knows of one extortion case involved a young "hacker" who used the Internet to steal another student's homework, then held the homework hostage, demanding that the student pay up on a debt.
Parry Aftab, an Internet lawyer and the executive director of Wiredsafety.org, reports that college students have been expelled for posting photos of themselves involved in drinking binges and that potential employers are now reviewing profiles to make hiring decisions.
The ways in which MySpace profiles can come back to haunt users are many. One of the most public recent events occurred Feb. 7 when Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., censored one of his staff members and insisted she dismantle her MySpace profile after she posted a picture of her bare midriff with her pants open and the waist of her underwear showing.
And a November article from New York Magazine reports that an employee of a large consulting firm was routinely reviewing posting on the networking Web site facebook.com to screen prospective employees.
What parents can do
Corporal Moody, Montpelier's school resource officer, says the solution to Internet safety is simple. "We need to educate parents," he said. He said that parents often just don't know what their kids are doing online. "When I started finding profiles of kids I knew online, I called the parents and they were shocked."
One area parent, who like most parents who spoke to The Times Argus did not want her name used for fear of embarrassing her child, learned about her 15-year-old son's MySpace from her own tech-savy sister.
"I was shocked when I saw it," she says. "His girlfriend's friend wrote some very obscene things about him."
She confronted her son, and insisted that he make his MySpace private, an option offered by the site allowing members to control other's access to their profiles.
"He resented me, and thought I was invading his privacy," she says. "The thing that bothers me," said the parent "is that they don't monitor the age limit. My son wrote on his profile that he was a 99-year-old from Alabama!"
Catherine, a teen from Montpelier, says that "kids are posting all kinds of personal information on their MySpace profiles, and do not even realize that anyone can access that information."
Young people may not consider the risks of MySpace and personal postings, while at the same time they frequently know more about the Internet than their parents do. The Media Awareness Network (or Mnet. at www.media-awareness.ca/english/index.cfm) found that 50 percent of American teens spend time on the Internet, yet only 16 percent tell their parents about what they do, and they will be secretive when adults inquire. When a Web-surfing kid writes "POS" on an instant message, or "IM," that means "parent over shoulder," for example.
Federal regulations don't provide any protection for parents or teens 13 or older. In 1998 the U.S. Congress passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which is administered by the Federal Trade Commission. The law essentially requires operators of commercial Web sites or online services that collect information from children under 13 years old to inform parents about the information, and get permission before they disclose it to a third party.
Karen Muoil, an attorney for the FTC, said that though similar measures protecting older children have been introduced to Congress in the past, there are presently no such protections for older children.
There are provisions in Vermont statute that facilitate the prosecution of perpetrators who commit "hate crimes" through electronic media, such as putting up hate-based Web pages, but those protections apply to targeted classes of people, and do not specifically protect teens and children.
Assistant Attorney General Everitt said there is also a Vermont statute that addresses electronic communications. The statute imposes a fine of $250 or three months in jail for a person who, as a first offense, threatens, makes obscene suggestions, or disturbs the peace "with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass or annoy, makes contact by means of a telephonic or other electronic communication..."
Kim Komando, the host of a top-ten radio show, and syndicated columnist, writes that "warnings (about the dangers of MySpace.com) may not be enough to convince kids to be safe ... teens can be especially skeptical of parental advice." She continues, "Let them read of the dangers of MySpace and similar Web sites for themselves. Sad stories of abductions, attacks and stalking related to these sites unfold every day. Just browse news stories on Google News or Yahoo News."
Sigrun Grabowski, an information technology specialist with the computer crimes unit of the Vermont State Police, says that her 15-year-old son has a MySpace, but that it's never been a problem. "We keep the computers in an open, common room in the house," she said. Grabowski says that "he knows that I work with computers, and I would find out what he did on MySpace."
Grabowski makes sure that her son doesn't post any personally identifying information. She said that her son wrote on his profile that he "gets drunk." "I asked him if that is really true, and he admitted it wasn't," she said. "I don't have much of an objection to the picture he posted of himself without a shirt. He's a teenager," said Grabowski, "but he knows I'm watching."
TIPS FOR PARENTS
According to the Web site Safeteens.com, the basics of Internet safety for teenagers are: Don't reveal your identity online; don't get together with someone you "meet" online; don't respond to hostile, belligerent or inappropriate messages and talk to your parents about what their ground rules and expectations are.
More information in Internet safety is available many different Web locations, including safekids.com; safeteens.com; blogsafety.com; safesurfers.org; WiredSafety.org.
A guide to parents: How to surf MySpace
While MySpace is a free Web site, and its pages are open to anyone, the site has many layers. Here's some advice for new browsers.
1. Become a member. It's free, and members can go places where nonmembers can't. Many photos and information are available only to members.
2. Once logged on, click on the link "search." MySpace gives members several options for searching.
3. To find your child, one quick way is to search using his or her e-mail address.
4. If that fails, another approach is to search using the "Classmate Finder" option. Type in the school's name and Vermont (or your state), and then click on the school name. MySpace then allows you to "refine your school search." Options include searching for current students or alumni. Make sure, when adjusting the "between ages" criteria, to have generous search criteria. Many high school students inflate their age, saying they are 21 when they are actually 16 (or younger).
5. Scroll down, and you'll see thumbnail pictures of MySpace profiles. Click on the picture, and you'll be taken to the teen's MySpace.
6. Not every teen links to his high school. But if you get onto the MySpace of one student, chances are they've linked to other students at the school. You can find these by clicking on the link "View all friends."
7. Once on a person's MySpace, an interesting place to look at is the "view more pics" link, which is right under the photo on the left side of the screen. This is where members post photos, and other members comment on them.