It was just announced today that a group of state attorneys general have teamed up with social networking site MySpace to form a joint task force. The goal is to better protect children from online predators and educate parents about the risks of social networking sites. As part of this initiative, MySpace will now make private the default profile settings for all members under the age of 18, so that adults whom they do not know in the physical world will not be able to find them. It will also develop an e-mail registry for parents to block their children from accessing the site.
This sounds great in theory but reality is another matter. Ask any 16 year-old to give you a "tour" of MySpace. First, you will find out that there is nothing to stop them from lying about their age. A 14 year-old girl who wants to meet college boys simply registers as an 18 year-old. And, do a quick search trying to meet 16 – 18 year-old girls in a particular zip code and a bevy of beauties pops up. Then it’s just a matter of sending one of them a message. And creating a new e-mail address which a parent doesn’t know about takes mere seconds. While it’s admirable for MySpace executives to talk about protecting our kids from online predators it’s virtually impossible when our kids are intent on hooking up online. It is completely unrealistic and naive for any parent to rely on the government and website executives to protect our children when they really don’t want to be protected.
According to a study by Pew/Internet, 55% of teens online have a profile and 32% have been contacted by a stranger. Additionally, of those with a profile, 61% have included the name of their city or town and a full 49% have included the name of their school. The majority of teens surveyed admit to altering information about themselves and believe that a motivated person could eventually identify them. For many teens, there is an excitement surrounding meeting people and forming relationships online.
It is up to parents to thoroughly research social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace so they understand what their children are viewing. It’s also important to educate teens on the dangers of social networking sites, not just regarding online predators but cyberbullying. Our kids need to become "cyber savvy" on how to deal with these issues and recognize potential threats.
Social networking is here to stay and it’s growing dramatically. As moms, we need to stay ahead of the curve and get smart about cyber safety in order to protect our kids.