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MySpace, a place without MyParents

Parental supervision - the real issue

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When I was a little kid 30 years ago, my mother thought nothing of allowing her 8-year-old son to walk the nine blocks to and from grade school. And if I wanted to hop on my bike and explore my little hometown of Marshall, Missouri, great! "Go out and have fun," Mom would say, "and just make sure you're home for dinner." When I was in high school, it was de rigeur to cruise up and down the town's streets, looking for trouble ... and sometimes finding it.

Those days, sadly, are gone. Parents now worry about their kids' safety out in the big world, so they don't allow walks to and from school, and bike rides to who knows where, and aimless cruising in cars. Better to have kids inside the house, or at supervised events, or in school activities. But kids still want to mingle, and they still want to hang out. Think of MySpace as the biggest mall in the entire world, and you might start to understand why kids spend so much time there.

MySpace says that it is tightening up the security on its service. An online security chief has been hired to improve and publicise safety on the site. Kids who say they are younger than 14 cannot create accounts. New rules - based on the ages the users report themselves to be - are in place that control who can view profiles, and the amount of information that can be viewed by other users. Note the key words, however: "the ages the users report themselves to be." There is no way for MySpace to verify a user's age, so we're right back to the spectre of a predator claiming to be 14 so that he can more easily target other teens.

So what should be done? I'm reminded of another story from my days as an English teacher years ago. It was parent-teacher conferences, and I was meeting with the parents of Sandy, a 9th grade girl who was quite smart but never did a lick of homework. I was a youth of 23, still green, while Sandy's parents were in their 40s. The conversation went something like this (and this is the absolute truth, I promise):

Sandy's Dad: We just can't figure out why Sandy's grades aren't any good.
Me: She doesn't do her homework.
Dad: Ah. Um ... how do we get her to do her homework?
Me: Do you have a dining room table?
Sandy's Mom (proudly): Oh yes!
Me: What does Sandy do after dinner?
Dad: She goes to her room.
Me: Well, how about after dinner, you have Sandy sit at the dining room table and do her homework instead?
Mom (leaning over to Dad): Write that down! (Dad takes out a slip of paper from his pocket and a pen and - I swear to you - wrote down "Do homework at dining room table.")
Dad: What else?
Me: How about one of you get up every half hour or so and ask her what she's working on and then check it?
Mom (excitedly leaning over to Dad): Write that down!(Dad writes down "Check homework every 30 mins.")

This astonished me. Here I was, only 23 and childless, and I was telling adults how to parent their teen! At that point I realised the awful truth: lots of people just don't know how to raise their kids.

The same situation holds true for MySpace. The company can hire all the security officers it wants, and it could replace every ad with a flashing banner that says "DO NOT TRUST RANDOM STRANGERS!!!", and send fliers to every parent in America...and bad things would still happen to kids connected to MySpace. A lot of parents aren't very good at parenting, and part of being a teenager is saying and doing stupid things (I'm example number one for that particular precept), trying to socialise as much as possible, and worrying at the same time about your hair and your weight and your zits and your clothes.

We can sure try to educate kids and parents and schools about MySpace, but I'm just not certain how effective we're ever going to be. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but it also means that we can't expect perfect success. Any time you allow humans to come into contact with each other, there's the potential for exploitation. That doesn't mean disaster is guaranteed, however. It just means that we need to try to keep a cool head and not allow blind emotion and fear to cloud our better judgments.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

Copyright © 2006, SecurityFocus

Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Hacking Knoppix, is in stores now.

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