Youth Culture Window
Last week, MySpace representatives announced their popular online social network had reached an agreement with 49 states to better safeguard teens that frequent the cyber playground. Can we all breathe a sigh of relief, now? We’ll see….
Most of you are familiar with MySpace, the 6th most popular website in the world (2nd most popular in the US), a social networking site that boasts a total of 300 million registered members worldwide! Almost 18 million of those are American teens, many of whom dedicate time each day to monitor their profiles and online friends (we discussed the site in detail in this article two years ago). Many users find the website’s features of instant messaging, sharing pictures, browsing other’s profiles, and other online interactions too alluring to browse away from, in spite of the increasing dangers associated with its use.
Sexual predators, cyber-bullying, adult-oriented spam, posting of inappropriate pictures, and even deaths associated with the site, as in the case of Megan Meier (click here for an article about that situation), are some of the risks teenagers run when using MySpace.
Until now, the site’s safety efforts have been about as protective as a mall security guard. MySpace supposedly only allows usage to those who are 14 or older. The problem is, they have no way of verifying age. That’s the big joke about MySpace. You can be anyone. A 40 year old pedophile can be Niki the 16 year old cheerleader.
So, what are these new steps MySpace is taking to make sure their site is safer for teenage users? MySpace has agreed to add new protections to its site, develop new technologies for age verification, and submit its efforts to independent monitors in the attempt of, “providing a safer online experience for teens,” according to MySpace’s Chief Security Officer, Hemanshu Nigam.
Other cautions being implemented by MySpace include:
- Making the default setting for 14 through 17-year-old users “private” (where it used to be only 14- and 15-year-olds)
- Responding within 72 hours to complaints about inappropriate content
- Strengthening software to find underage users
- Creating a high school section for users under 18 years old
This laundry list of improvements is meant to make the social network a safer place for teenage users. So, why is it that I still don’t feel any better about MySpace?
Is this a sincere attempt by MySpace to solve longstanding and overdue problems, or just a reaction to all the heat they have taken on these serious issues as of late? (There sure were a lot of attorneys general present last Monday when the announcement was made in New York.) Then again, my hesitation might be due to the fact that Texas, the only state not in the agreement, still falls under a different standard. And maybe, it’s just because the steps being outlined are too little, too late.
For example, how will their new “age verification strategies” cope with the fact that kids simply lie about their age? So much of what a user is allowed to do is based on their reported age. Getting this right will be crucial to MySpace’s efforts to make the site safer for teens. And this is no small task! (Many bloggers are talking about this. Jonathan chimed in on this and linked several sources in his blog last week)
Secondly, how will this affect online connection efforts of well-intentioned adults, like teachers, coaches, and youth pastors? Under the new guidelines, everyone over the age of 18 is filed in the same category, with the same restrictions, pedophile or not. While this maneuver will not stop an adult from contacting teens on MySpace, it may slow one’s efforts because full names or email addresses must now be known if an adult wants to invite a minor to be a friend. Although this is a good move to help protect teens, you might consider how this impacts which pieces of information you collect from new students at your church.
Lastly, what message will these attempts at improved safety send to parents? It’s a guarantee that some parents will do their homework on this issue, and scratch their heads over some of the same questions raised here. Sadly, it’s also a guarantee that some parents will see the efforts and think the problems have been solved.
So, what can you do to help your teens’ families? Until we see exactly how these changes play out on MySpace, two practical moves are:
Understand the difference between “safe” and “safer.” Remember, these steps are being taken to provide a “safer” online experience. When it comes to pre-marital sex and MySpace, “safer” is still not “safe.” There will still be risks that must be navigated by teenage users, even after the changes have been made.
MySpace, and other online social networks, will remain a significant part of teenagers’ lives for a long time to come. Unfortunately, there are potentially dangerous side effects that accompany their usage in teens’ lives. Feel free to share this article, and those linked, with your teens’ families. Helping you help them is what we do.
Educate your teens’ parents. Too many parents don’t even know that, technically speaking, their 12 year old daughter shouldn’t have a MySpace account. Progressing past the basic information, most parents’ knowledge base is further reduced. Don’t allow them to believe that MySpace has solved all of the problems, yet. For even more detail about MySpace, check out that other article Jonathan wrote a couple years ago.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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