MYSPACE.COM AND INTERNET SAFETY

MySpace.com is the largest community of teens and twenty-somethings in history. There’s roughly sixty million registered users. Its growth rate is mind boggling. It’s one of the most popular destinations on the Internet and it’s far and away the most popular site online for social networking. It’s an increasingly powerful force in the music industry, as known and unknown bands use it to communicate with fans and spread music outside of the normal channels. Here’s an article from Business Week about the “MySpace Generation” and how advertisers are reacting to the site.

The growth of MySpace.com has been accompanied by online sexual predators, criminal probes, attempts by schools to block access to the site, and especially by a tidal wave of articles about the horror of it all.

Here’s an article with an interesting look at the statistics. MySpace.com might create opportunities for sexual predators and precautions are necessary, but at the moment a relatively small number of incidents are being overblown in the press. “[N]ovelty makes news and new technologies tend to pick up and draw new attention to old problems that never went away.” The numbers don’t bear out the image of MySpace.com as a menace to be blocked.

In the last few decades, comic books, heavy metal music, and rap have horrified parents and drawn media coverage and shocked overreaction. MySpace.com requires more thought by parents, schools, and authorities – not because it’s more dangerous but because it involves content created by teens and not just consumed by them.

These comments were reportedly written by Daniel Johnston of Redwood Day School in Oakland. It’s a good discussion for parents and schools about how to react to MySpace.com.

“I am a seventh grade Advisor, and today I had half of the seventh grade class for a thirty-minute advisory. I told them I was writing a Friday Letter about MySpace.com this week, and that I wanted to hear their opinions. I told them that this social-networking website had been in the news recently, relating to assaults on young people. Police around the country are investigating incidents of teenagers who were sexually assaulted by people they met on MySpace.com. I also told them that I had a MySpace.com account myself and had visited a wide range of profiles. Jaws dropped.

“I have had positive experiences with some of my nephews and nieces and several of my advisees maintaining blogs. Blogging sites such as LiveJournal.com are like online diaries or journals. People use text-based blogs to share their ideas and thoughts with a group of friends. I was curious about how MySpace.com was different. I discovered that online communities like Xanga.com and MySpace.com are about social interaction, sharing photos, and meeting other people. It is a digital equivalent to other unsupervised times that adolescents have at social events or at home, except that other people can listen in or read along with the interaction.

“MySpace.com has some wonderful qualities. There is a vibrant music scene that happens around MySpace.com. It is valuable to have a place for youth to express themselves; it is natural for kids to want to share their thoughts with their peers, to create a community for themselves. While online communities like MySpace.com provide users with the ability to post blogs—sort of an online journal—most adolescents and adults use it as an opportunity to chat, share photos and videos, and meet other people. A lot of the behavior on sites like MySpace.com has been going on in teen hangouts for generations.

“However, now comes the danger: this adolescent behavior is on display for everybody—peers, parents, and predators. It is dangerous when kids reveal, intentionally or, more frequently, unintentionally, specific information to strangers about who they are and where they can be found, such as their name, what school they go to, their favorite hangouts, or anything personal.

“When I went on MySpace.com, I was surprised at how easy it was to find middle school aged-students. While MySpace.com requires users to be 14 years old, and has some restrictions on access to pages of users younger than 16 years old, most kids (and many adults) using the site simply lie about their age. However, no matter what they state, the photos and comments they post make their age clear. Many adolescents post photos of themselves and their friends at school, at home or at school events.

“For Internet use in general, we recommend parents supervise their children’s use. We think that our children’s computers with Internet access should be in communal rooms, rather than in their bedrooms. While at RDS we do not filter Internet access, our practice is to let students use the Internet only for schoolwork and under teacher supervision. We recommend that parents monitor adolescents’ use of email and chat rooms. The spam flooding in their box is a perfect opportunity for one of those teachable moments that parents and teachers look for.

“When it comes to the use of MySpace.com, we recommend parents of adolescents try out the site by logging on to see what kids are up to, maybe even their own kids. It is an opportunity for a meaningful conversation. Matt Harris, a technologist at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School has posted very good instructions for how to do so: www.wornickjds.org/tech/parenting/parenting_communities.html. Make sure your child’s page is private, that they do not post personal information about themselves, and that they do not mention where they live or go to school. For more information and resources about Internet privacy, I have posted some information and links at www.rdschool.org/Learning_at_RDS/ClassPages/Online_Safety.html.

“As you explore MySpace.com or monitor your child’s Internet use in other ways, don’t be surprised if your child accuses you of invading their privacy. The following two points outline a fair strategy and the educational bottom line:

“1. Let your child know that you are going to visit MySpace.com well ahead of time. That is, give them a chance to clean up their act if they need to.

“2. The whole point of this is for them to learn that online communities are not private, and therefore not safe from prying eyes. If your child really expresses a need to have a place where they can express themselves in privacy, let them know that an online community is not private, and that the best bet is still the old-fashioned pen and journal.

“The most important advice I can give is that parents talk to their adolescent kids about their use of the Internet, and to help them understand that the information they post is not private, and that once posted, it may be difficult to remove.

“The links below provide information about keeping yourself and your children safe online, and about software tools you can install to filter or limit your child’s access to the net. However, please remember, no software solution takes the place of active engagement with kids on their use of the Internet; most can be bypassed by tech-savvy teens.”

http://www.wiredsafety.com/
http://www.cyberangels.org/index.html
http://www.blogsafety.com/index.htm
http://www.safeteens.com/
http://www.protectyourkids.info/