MySpace has quadrupled its estimated number of registered sex offenders posting profiles on the site, from its May estimate of 7,000 to a current tally of 29,000. The pages of identified offenders have been deleted. What does this news mean for parents? How do we assess risk and keep it in perspective, and what best practices should be implemented on family, corporate and societal levels to keep kids safe?
While 29,000 registered offenders represent a small percentage of the more than 80 million people who have MySpace pages, it's a significant number that should get our attention. If 29,000 individuals were bold enough to create MySpace profiles using their real names, how many more are registered under disguised identities?
I have come to accept that online social networks are here to stay. As a parent, I view social networks as the ultimate public display of information. Online social interactions are interactions with the general public, for better or for worse. Personally, I feel uncomfortable with the general public having direct online connections with kids. Just as I wouldn't let a child visit the mall unsupervised, I wouldn't advise parents to let young kids join social networks like MySpace.
How do we decide when kids and teens are old enough to get involved? That is largely up to each family based on a child's level of maturity and understanding of safe surfing, and a family's level of supervision. Age 14 has cropped up as an industry standard for participating in many social networks, but I see no objective basis for that age being used as a particular milestone. (Whether an age limit is even enforced is a separate question.)
Sites specifically designed for younger kids, such as Club Penguin or Webkinz, may be safer and appropriate in themselves, by my personal strategy is to try to delay our family's entry into the online social world until we're ready to deal with the larger "general public." Just as you might not give a 7-year-old Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to read, knowing that he is not close to being ready for the more mature and intense Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, many parents have chosen to hold off on allowing their children to get involved in the entry-level social networking sites that have been called MySpace with training wheels.
The responsibility for creating safe online networks has to go beyond telling individual families to "deal with it." Is additional legislation needed to increase online safety? That is an ongoing discussion, but it is worth noting that pressure from state attorneys general led MySpace to investigate and remove the 29,000 sex offenders who could be recognized.
Online networking is huge business and these large corporations need to be accountable for creating safe products. MySpace was a strategic $580 million acquisition for Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp. The self-dubbed "flirty" sites eSPIN-the-bottle, eCRUSH and the photo-rating site High School Style Board are owned by Hearst Communications. If these corporations are going to create products for kids and teens, they should be held accountable for making them reasonably safe, just as car manufacturers, restaurants and amusement parks are responsible for producing safe products and environments for their customers. Technology and culture are both evolving so quickly that we have not figured out all those standards and laws yet that are needed to ensure that accountability.