April 13, 2006

MySpace takes steps to keep kids safe


Facing mounting pressure to better police its fast-growing teen Web site against online predators, MySpace has announced plans to hire a security chief. This comes after MySpace launched a public service ad campaign on owner Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV network and online properties, including MySpace.

But some critics questioned whether the moves by Murdoch's News Corp. will do anything to allay the fears of parents who worry that their kids will meet "friends" online who turn out to be adults trying to prey on children.

"This appointment of a security officer along with the public safety campaigns are very welcome first steps but are by no means sufficient," says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has launched an investigation of MySpace and has accused the site of failing to shield minors from pornography and sexual predators.

Blumenthal advocates other measures, including raising MySpace's minimum age from 14 to 16.

Others who are concerned about Web-based predators also say they welcome the public service announcements (by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and the Advertising Council) and the new security chief, Hemanshu Nigam, Microsoft's director of consumer security outreach and child safety. He's a former federal prosecutor for the Department of Justice, and he begins work May 1.

But some online safety advocates weren't reassured that it would keep teens safe from online predators.

"The PSAs are a great idea, but I hope the new safety person makes some changes real quickly," says Jayne Hitchcock, an author of books about cybercrime and president of Working to Halt Online Abuse, an Internet safety organization. "I think they got too big too quick and didn't know how to handle it, and then the story started coming out about kids meeting older people online."

MySpace, which is just over 2 years old, has become the default online hangout for teens across the country. The site has about 70 million registered users of all ages and is the Web's largest social networking site.

Younger teens have especially jumped onto MySpace, sometimes spending hours a day posting pictures, updating school buddies about their lives and making new online friends.

Although most teenagers are safe online, police across the nation say more than a dozen minors have been sexually molested by men they have met online. Dozens of arrests have been made, many of them in online stings. But some also involve men who have allegedly assaulted real teens they met through MySpace and other sites.

Predators are known to try to meet teens through chat rooms and other online places. But police have focused recently on MySpace because of its size and rapid growth - and because teens often post personal information and revealing photos.

Sgt. Trisha Taylor of the Charleston, S.C., police department's computer crime unit says she doesn't have much faith in technical solutions.

"I'm glad they're doing what they're doing, but it doesn't mean a parent shouldn't supervise the Internet activity," Taylor says. "Predators are looking for kids who are unsupervised.

"I don't care about what kind of filters you have, if they are unsupervised, there's still a danger."

Eric Gray, the father of two girls, ages 14 and 11, took away their access to MySpace about six months ago (the 11-year-old had lied about her age so she could sign up for a page). He says he's not about to give it back anytime soon.

"It's not going to change anything," Gray says. "I think it's all Band-Aids on the dike. It may keep one or two kids safer, but the people out there who are trying to get in contact with kids are still going to get in contact with kids. Kids don't see any of the dangers."

But at least some children have been responding to news coverage of online dangers and educational campaigns in schools across the country.

Jade Williams, 15, of Virginia Beach says most of her friends have started making their MySpace profiles private - viewable only by their friends."Ever since everyone's been talking about problems with MySpace, they've been doing that and parents would rather them be private," she says.

No matter how effective the new security chief turns out to be, "one person can't be a hall monitor for tens of thousands of teens in cyberspace," says Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.

"It comes back to parents having conversations with their kids," he says.Says Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children: "These are very positive steps, but they're not a replacement for Parenting 101. They're not a replacement for basic parental vigilance."

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