DALLAS – Mom was shocked when she sat down to help her daughter with a computer problem.
Right up there on the Internet where anybody might find it was her daughter’s picture, hobbies and friends. And a lie: The 12-year-old had listed her age as 14 to get access to the Web site.
Not only that, but among the e-mail messages her daughter received through the site was one from a 30-year-old man offering to open up “a whole new group of friends” for her.
The woman, a divorced mother from the Dallas area, doesn’t want her name or that of her daughter in the newspaper because, she says, the issue is privacy.
Her daughter is a member of what’s being called the MySpace generation – named for the phenomenally successful Web site that enables users to exchange gossip, gripes, deep thoughts, pictures and whatever else comes into their minds. The kids are computer-savvy, in touch and upfront.
And that’s placing them in danger, say law enforcement authorities, school and church officials, and parents who take the time to monitor the sites.
In January, a 14-year-old girl in Newark, N.J., was found naked and strangled in a garbage bin. Friends said she had been in contact with an older man through one of the social network sites. That same month, a 26-year-old Houston man was charged with sexual assault, accused of luring a 15-year-old-girl into a relationship through MySpace. And last week, FBI officials in Connecticut revealed that a pair of undercover agents went on MySpace to track down two adult men who had sexually assaulted underage girls they contacted over the site.
With 60 million members, and an estimated 10 million under the age of 17, News Corp.-owned MySpace is the biggest and fastest growing of the social network sites, as they are called. Others include Facebook and Xanga. Users are supposed to be at least 14, a restriction easily thwarted.
The site’s popularity is no mystery – at least to users.
Shelby Evans, a 12-year-old, says she has made 107 friends via MySpace since she started using it in January.
“You get all excited when you get a comment,” she says. “It’s like getting e-mail or a letter in the mail. It’s also a lot easier getting to know somebody on the site than introducing yourself at school, which is a lot more socially awkward.”
Teens fill their sites with snapshots of friends and pets, artwork, comments on teachers and elders, pinups of favorite performers – the kinds of things once found in teens’ albums and diaries and on bulletin boards. The Internet twist is that they often include audio and video components.
“My view is that teens need their own world somewhere and their own way of expression,” says Jonathan Gary, 17.
Andrew Moua, 17, uses MySpace to plan weekends with friends. But he knows of one friend who posted an uncomplimentary remark about her mom on the site and got kicked out of the house as a result.
Jonathan says few kids take what they read on the sites seriously, anyway. “Nobody makes a big deal out of it,” he says. “It’s something to laugh at.”
But predators can easily register as teenagers at social network sites. False identity established, they can then gain the confidence of those using the site. Or they can watch for clues – a child’s activities posted online might lead to a sports schedule and to a specific playing field at a specific time, for example.
News Corp. announced recently that it will soon start screening members to prevent the kinds of crimes that have drawn the attention of authorities and parents. Although no details of the new plan have been released, chief executive Chris DeWolf said the company is searching for an executive to head its safety and security education program.
But adults may be overthinking the dangers, according to some experts who monitor kids and their use of the media.
Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a media-studies organization, says news stories about MySpace have made it sound like “a place where only bad things can happen.”
The thing that adults miss, she says, is that kids have taken a site originally created so they could share their music and transformed it into a new thing, a whole new social environment.
“One of the things that happens just naturally to adults when kids become innovators is, we tend to react out of the frame we know, which is the frame of the protector, and we don’t necessarily value the innovation that they are bringing,” she says.
Jaye Hansen first heard about the sites at a parents’ conference at her church.
“I was told that it was a hookup service and that it wasn’t good,” she says.
It wasn’t until her own 13-year-old daughter asked permission to go on MySpace, however, that Hansen decided to look into it a little more deeply. (Hansen didn’t want her daughter’s name used in this article.)
Her daughter, now 14, says friends who already used the site kept urging her to get onboard. Last month Hansen gave in, but only after setting some ground rules.
“I have a great kid,” she says. “She has straight A’s, and she hasn’t done anything for me not to trust her.
“But there are pedophiles. I have a pretty daughter, and that’s what I’m concerned about.”
The daughter’s full name and other identifying information must not appear on the site. The girl’s MySpace profile is designated “private,” meaning only friends whom she can identify are allowed to exchange messages with her. And at all times Hansen has access to her daughter’s site – and to all the sites of all those her daughter corresponds with.
“It’s public domain, after all,” Hansen says.
As a result she has become the MySpace guru and guide for other moms whose daughters are in the same circle of online friends.
“She knows the ins and outs,” says Cindy Cieri, whose 14-year-old is in the group. Cieri keeps close watch over her own daughter’s Internet habits, she says. “If she’s on, I’ll go into her room – she’s got a little laptop – and I’ll look over her shoulder.”
But she says Hansen goes further – much further.
“She not only monitors her kids,” Cieri says. “She monitors our kids. She tells the kids, `I’m reading everything going in and coming out.'”
For example, Hansen noticed one of the girls had posted her full name on her MySpace site. “She told her mother, and her mother took it off,” Cieri says.
Hansen’s daughter says she isn’t bothered when Mom monitors her site. “I just don’t want my mom looking over their sites,” she says of her friends.
But Hansen is just doing what authorities recommend.
The Dallas area mom who would rather not be identified has gone a little further: She has placed a parental lock on the family computer for the time being. “I’ve become very unpopular with my child,” she says.
“I’m definitely fighting an uphill battle.”
PROTECT YOUR KIDS ONLINE
Keep the computer in the family room so you can monitor what happens online.
Review the Web sites your children create online. Check what information and pictures are being released.
Check files on the computer. If computers are too confusing, get help.
Tell children not to give out personal information such as phone numbers or addresses.
Set time limits on surfing and restrict most computer use for specific purposes, such as school.
Dallas Morning News correspondent Karen M. Thomas contributed to this report.