Blog Sites, Profile Sites, Diary Sites or Social-Networking SitesParry addresses parental concerns
Everyone calls them a different name, but it’s where kids are flocking (adults are too). They are a combination of a diary, a personal ad and a cyberdating Web site. I often call them a public diary on steroids. Recently, I have been receiving a large number of inquiries from schools, parents, regulators and the media about social-networking Web sites.
I decided that it was important to address parent concerns and answer their questions. In connection with this we have agreed to provide our safety content and help to the largest and most popular of these sites, MySpace.com.
I did this because they cared more than the other sites I contacted. When I explained the problems parents were reporting and we had spotted, they asked for help in improving safety at the site and building a section for parents’ questions. That’s what we do. We help everyone surf more safely. And MySpace.com is helping us do that.
MySpace.com and other similar sites are designed to allow people to share their creativity, pictures, and information with others. Sometimes people do this to find romance. Sometimes they do it to find friends with similar interest. While this may be okay for adults, it is not okay for kids.
MySpace.com recognizes this, and prohibits anyone under 14 years of age from using their website. Unfortunately, while they may set rules to keep younger kids off the site, they can’t prevent kids from lying about their age, pretending to be 14 years of age or older. To address this, MySpace.com has developed special software to review the profiles of their members, to try and find anyone under age, based on information the members post about themselves. It’s not perfect, but it does help spot the underage members.
While MySpace.com is doing its best to keep your children from using their website and lying about their age, it’s up to parents to do their job too. Parents need to talk with their children about not sharing personal information online. Personal information includes pictures, names and addresses, schools they attend, cell and phone numbers and many other less obvious things, such as the name of their school team, ethnic background and even a mall near your house. (You can learn more about how to talk to your kids and what you should be asking at WiredKids.org or WiredSafety.org. I am an Internet privacy and security lawyer and founded the all-volunteer Wired Safety Group. We can help you if things go wrong online, or you just have questions. We provide information, education and one-to-one help for victims of cyberabuse.)
We at WiredSafety.org are developing a special program just for parents concerned about their kids using social-networking and online dating sites. It will teach you what you need to know about finding out if your child has a profile on one of these sites, how to review them and remove them, if you want to. It will also help you if your child is being cyberbullied using one of these sites or members from these sites, or is cyberbullying others.
So what do you, as a parent, do? First you need to find out if your child has a page on one of these sites. The best way to find out if your child has a profile on this or another similar site is to ask them. If you’re not sure that your child is being honest with you, you can search MySpace.com (or the other sites) using their e-mail address, or by searching for their school. (You click on “search” and enter their email address or full name in the appropriate search box.)
If you find that your child has a profile on the Web site, you should review it. It’s amazing how much you can learn about your child by reading their profiles. Does it contain personal information, such as their full name, address or phone numbers? Has your child posted photos? Are they photos of themselves or someone else? Are they sharing poems they write or provocative comments about themselves or others?
If you want the profile removed (you must remove your child’s profile if they are under age), first ask your child to remove it themselves. If that doesn’t work, MySpace.com has a section explaining how to remove a page. If you find someone who is underage, you can report it there as well. It’s not as easy a procedure as the other Web sites.
While MySpace.com is working hard to keep kids off their Web site, ultimately, protecting your child is your job. But you have lots of help. At WiredKids.org and WiredSafety.org thousands of volunteers donate their time to helping parents and children surf responsibly and safely. And we will be building a few tutorials help parents and their children understand how to be careful when communicating publicly online.
A good things to do is to ask your kids why they created the profile. You might learn that they wanted to share their thoughts with others, make new friends or even allow others in their school to get to know them better. But not all of their motives are as noble or safe. Some may be interested in meeting new romantic interests or role-playing inappropriately online. And when a young preteen lies about their age posing as a seventeen year old at the site, that can be a serious problem. Others in their late teens might approach your child thinking they were older. That’s bad for everyone.
If you discover that your child is posting provocative comments or inappropriate images online, it’s time for the tough talk. The one about stranger dangers and how that cute fourteen year old boy they meet online may not be cute, may not be fourteen and may not be a boy. (Parents of young boys need to understand that their children are equally at risk. About one-third of the cases of Internet sexual exploitation are men exploiting boys.) Our children need to realize that there are real risks relating to meeting strangers offline, including murder.
The first confirmed murder victim by an Internet sexual predator was thirteen when she died, three years ago May 2002. The risks are real, not matter how smart, sophisticated or tech savvy your kids are. We recommend the book, A Girl’s Life Online, by Katie Tarbox. We are also developing a few videos for teens teaching them about standard ploys used by Internet sexual predators to lure a young boy or girl into an offline meeting or sexual exploitation situations online.
It’s not easy raising children anymore. It is even harder when the parent is expected to be expert in Internet, cell phone and interactive game risks. The good thing is that you’re not facing these challenges alone. We’re here to help.
Just remember that while your kids may know more than you do about technology, you know more about life. And you are allowed to set the rules and enforce them. You’re still the parent! There is software you can install that will record what your kids say and post online. There is even one that will e-mail you reports at work. The ones I like best are made by Spectorsoft, and can be found at software4parents.com or spectorsoft.com. But don’t use them just to spy on your kids. Treat them like a security video camera in the corner of a bank. No one views the tapes unless and until there is a break-in. Do the same here. Check the program reports if something goes wrong. It will collect whatever you need for evidence and to help your child if something goes wrong.
Also, check your parental control programs. Many, such as AOL’s and MSN’s, can block access to social-networking Web sites. or other sites you think are inappropriate for your younger child. There are many other products you can purchase to block sites as well. (Check out software4parents.com to learn about and purchase some of these.) Just remember that the best filter is the one between your children’s ears.
If you child is being bullied by another child online, check the terms of service first. If the bullying violates the Web site’s terms of service, report it to TOS and the offending comments and/or profile will be removed. If something serious occurs and you need to reach out to law enforcement, let them know that WiredSafety.org is here to help them, if they need it. Cyberbullying is a growing problem. You can learn more about it, as well as how to prevent and handle cyberbullying incidents, at our StopCyberbullying.org and InternetSuperheroes.org. We also has a report line link for victims of cyberbullying, their schools and parents where specially-trained volunteers assist victims of cyberstalking, harassment and cyberbullying without charge.
If schools are looking for a presentation or program to address their students’ posting inappropriate profiles or using these Web sites. while underage or other parent concerns, they should visit WiredKids.org or Teenangels.org. Schools may find many of their students using a particular Web site If the students are under 13, please notify MySpace.com’s help staff and their profiles will be removed immediately. Working together with schools and parents, we may be able to keep our kids off of Web site that are inappropriate for young children and teach them to make good choices online and offline.