I've been writing about parenting and technology long enough for themes to begin to emerge. Like Lou Dobbs talking again and again about the "War on the Middle Class," I am going to keep following the evolving story about kids and online safety, and supporting the idea that "Safe Product Design is Good Product Design."
Monday's announcement that MySpace has unveiled a new safety plan, working in cooperation with 49 attorneys general, is a step in the right direction. However, it did draw the predictable criticism epitomized by this reader comment on The Social blog:
A Novel Idea...: reader comment from jltnol Posted on: January 14, 2008, 2:24 PM PST Story: MySpace agrees to social-networking safety plan
Why can't parents just do what the [sic] are supposed to do? Part of parenting is knowing what your kids are up to all the time.
If you can't do it then hire a baby sitter who can.
You need a license to drive and a license to fish, but anybody can have a child.
Wonderful! Another chance to hone my argument against such an unrealistic point of view. This is like saying, "You had a kid, so it's your job to drive safely. Why should car makers have to provide seat belts and antilock brakes? If you don't like it, don't drive at all."
Parents can't know exactly what their kids are up to at all times, especially when the category "kids" includes teenagers. In fact, I bet that if I told you that I maintained absolute surveillance on a 15-year-old at all times, you'd think I was a paranoid, hyperinvolved parent.
Parents should do their best to make sure that young kids are always in safe, supervised situations, and that older kids have reasonable supervision (and have hopefully internalized some judgment and common sense by then), but we cannot just brush off the issues of online safety in one fell swoop by putting all the responsibility on parents.
No one lives in a small town any more. The Internet connects us all with an interactive window to the larger world, creating a whole new set of challenges. For instance, parents can't assume that they know whether or not their house, or the house of a friend down the street, contains porn that is accessible by kids. Some of the most upsetting incidents my own friends have experienced involved their very young sons (elementary-school age) being exposed to violent pornography when sleeping over at a trusted friend's home. The parents in the host family didn't know that their son was getting up at 5 a.m. and accessing these images and videos. In this case, a strong filter installed on the host family's computer would have been an appropriate safeguard.
In the world of social networking, companies like Facebook and MySpace should be doing all they can to create safe environments for their users, which include invited users age 13 (Facebook) and 14 (MySpace) and up, and countless younger kids who are registering as teens or 99-year-olds. I know there are reasonable disagreements about how best to ensure user safety, but that doesn't mean that companies shouldn't try. I commend MySpace for working with law enforcement to create better programs, as they are the ones who deal with the worst outcomes of online predation.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported today that North Carolina's Computer Crimes unit has expanded from four agents to 13 since it was opened in 2003. Their agents are "overwhelmed with cases, nearly all of which involve people trying to sexually exploit children they meet online. Four years ago...predators found most of their victims through chat rooms. Now, nearly all have profiles on MySpace, Facebook, or some other social-networking site."
I am not saying shut down social-networking sites or even prohibit teens from using them. I am not saying that the whole Internet should be G-rated. And I realize that you can't always protect kids who will work hard to get around safeguards. But we are going to need to work together, instead of being adversarial toward families, if we are going to help protect those kids, teens, and parents who are making an effort to be safe. Setting teens' profiles to default to private is one good place to start, and making sure that all the default settings really do protect privacy is another. Let's get started by addressing the obvious issues and move on from there.