Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/07/03/myspace_parenting/

MySpace, a place without MyParents

Parental supervision - the real issue

By Scott Granneman

Posted in Media, 3rd July 2006 09:10 GMT

Comment Like, ohmigod! Have you heard? About MySpace? LOL

MySpace is the second most popular web property in the world. Since appearing in January 2004, the site currently has 87m accounts, and it's adding around 270,000 new users a day. Of those 87m, about one-fourth are minors.

In fact, the site grew 752 per cent in one year, one of the largest - if not the largest - expansions on the web in history. That might explain why Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace for $580mn a year ago. Murdoch's no dummy, and it seems like it was a pretty smart decision, since the site pulls in around $13m each month from advertising sales.<br/>

But, like, have you heard? There are sexual predators, paedophiles, murderers, bullies, tramps, sharpies, and frauds on MySpace! The children are at risk! Just visit MyCrimeSpace or The Dead Kids Of MySpace and you'll find a bellyful of stories that will scare the willies out of you.

I spent around four hours last night reading many of them, and they collectively are portraits of the dregs - or at least the really stupid members - of society.

John R Wentworth, 27, of Illinois struck up a conversation with a 14-year-old girl on MySpace and tried to meet her for sex, but was arrested. (For similar stories, just see Jay D Coffield, 44, of Illinois; Mark Darragh, 21, also of Illinois; and a 25-year-old Steven Builta from Indiana. And there are lots more where those came from.

Two teenage girls near Toledo posted death threats targeting a 15-year-old fellow student on their MySpace pages.

Michael Ramos, 48, was arrested for trying to hook up with Jessica, a 15-year-old, for sex near Ontario after chatting with her on MySpace. Unfortunately for Ramos, there was no Jessica; several teenage boys had created a MySpace account for a fake girl in order to cheer up a buddy who had recently broken up with his girlfriend, and Ramos started chatting instead.

In Boulder, Colorado, seven men befriended a woman on MySpace, invited her to a party, and then sexually assaulted and beat her.

A 16-year-old girl met a guy on MySpace who claimed to be a 25-year-old living in Jericho. As in the Middle East. So she tricked her parents into getting her a passport and then hopped on a plane to Israel. US officials persuaded her to go back home.

A 14-year-old girl claims she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old she corresponded with on MySpace. She's suing her accused attacker and MySpace for $30m (for a good look at the likely success of those suits, see Anita Ramasastry's "A Fourteen-Year-Old Girl's Suit Against MySpace" at the always-excellent FindLaw).

Two girls - 14 and 15-years-old - chatted on MySpace with a man for two weeks, claiming to be an 18-year-old named "Natalia". When the man showed up for a tryst at Natalia's supposed apartment, the two girls robbed him at gunpoint!

Believe me, there are plenty more where those came from. It's gotten so bad that legislators are considering laws that would ban cyberbullying using sites like MySpace, parents can spy on their kids' MySpace pages for the low low low fee of just $6 a month, and various branches of the Boys and Girls Club of America are banning access to MySpace in computer labs, and certain high schools are instituting ridiculously overbearing punishments to students who create fake MySpace pages lampooning school administrators.

Folks, we are in the midst of a mass hysteria. The media has found the latest way to drive readers and ratings: the good ol' fashioned gumbo stew of children and teens, sexuality, murder and death, new technology, and fear. Lots and lots of fear. Fear that freaks out parents and those in authority and leads to bad decisions made in the name of security.

Look, I know there are really bad people using MySpace to do really bad things. If its criminal, they should be caught and punished. But I also know that there are really bad people in the grocery stores, at the movie theaters, in parks, and even on the other end of the phone.

When I was a high school English teacher many years ago, I had a 9th grade student who confided a terrible story to me one day. When she was in the 8th grade, she started prank calling people on weekends to break up her boredom. One Saturday night the guy on the other end of the phone didn't hang up like all the others. Instead, he talked to her. The phone talks continued, and soon they met. You can guess the rest. Months went by, during which she was molested by this man in his 40s; eventually she found herself pregnant at 14. It was a terrible ordeal that she overcame due to her inner strength and the support of her family.

So since that sicko used the telephone to meet his victim, we should ban phones? Or at least tightly control how kids use them, with age restrictions and credit card verifications? Of course not. The fact is, every new technology has been used by people to perform, or enable, illicit and illegal acts. MySpace, and the internet in general, simply expands the ability of people to communicate easily over distance more than any other tool that humanity has created. The fact that it's been adopted so wholeheartedly by teenagers freaks out adults who don't know how to control MySpace and its ilk.

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.