grey_bar
 Social Networking Sites

Overview:

With the advent of the Internet, more ways of communicating with friends, staying in touch with long-lost pals, and meeting new people have abound. Instant messaging services and chat rooms used to be the “cool” new feature and are still used very frequently, but as times have changed, blogs and social networking sites have now become all the rage. Though teens sign-up for these services and begin an account and begin to publish information about themselves and their inner-most thoughts, what they don’t realize is that it’s not only their friends who are viewing this information but it’s also anyone with access to the Internet, including online predators and sex offenders. This is not to say that the creation of a profile on a social networking site is bad as this modality of creative and personal expression does have its benefits, however, it's just that it can be quite controversial as will be noted here.

To provide the reader with an author's viewpoint concerning the phenomenon of social networking sites, Doug Johnson, reporting for Education World, lists "Seven Things All Adults Should Know About MySpace" (though there are really eight listed) or any social networking site for that matter. The following is a very brief summary of what he has listed. On the website, one will find more in-depth explanations to each of these guidelines:

1.    Social networking sites are extremely popular amongst the young adult population.

2.    Friends are probably just that: friends.

3.    Children and teens will not stay away from social networking sites just because they are blocked at school.

4.    There are potential dangers associated with MySpace and other social networking sites.

5.    Young adult users of these sites need to realize that the information they post is made public and anyone with Internet access can view it.

6.    MySpace is working towards making the environment safer for its users.

7.    Teachers may want to check to see if sites have been created about them but not by them.

8.   There is value in social-networking sites.

grey_bar

Popular Social Networking Sites:

MySpace
MySpace is the most popular social networking site on the Internet according to MSNBC.com. This site was originally created in 2003 for bands and singers to promote their music and to get their name out there, but it soon gave way to becoming a site for any person over the age of 14 to set up an account and begin socializing with peers and frighteningly enough, strangers. Along with textual information, users can also post pictures on their site and design their site to their liking using special features such downloadable images and icons (MySpace, 2006).

Friendster
Slightly older than MySpace, Friendster was created in 2002 to link friends to friends to friends and so on. With the six-degrees-of-separation phenonmenon, users (aged 16 and above) could see that somehow, someway they would be likely to know friends of their friends in order to find someone to eventually date. With that being said, Friendster originally started out as a dating network but soon turned into a social network and a place to simply meet others for the fun of it. Friendster has more than 27 million members to date and users can post personal information as well as pictures on their sites (JOMC391-Friendster, 2003 and About Friendster, 2006).

Facebook
Created in February 2004, Facebook was designed to be a social gathering place on the Internet. As long as one has a valid e-mail address from a supported college, high school, or company, one can create a profile which includes pictures and text. Young adult and adult users can connect with friends, friends of friends, and meet new people. There are more than 7.5 million users and Facebook is the seventh most trafficked site in the United States (Facebook, About Facebook, 2006).

Xanga
Xanga is basically a place to journal one's thoughts. Users, aged 13 and above, create an account and can begin journaling their thoughts. These journals and diary entries become viewable to the public. Users can also post pictures of themselves along with their entries. Through this site, users can connect with each other (Xanga.com, 2006).

LiveJournal
Live Journal is just that - a journal that is posted online for all to see. There is no age limitation except that if users are under the age of 13, they need to get parental permission first in order to use the service.  In addition to getting a personal journal space when one signs up, one also has the option of including songs, pictures, images, and other graphics on his/her site. This site is intended to share one's thoughts as well as gain insight into the lives of others and network with peers (LiveJournal.com, 2006).

Blogger
This site began in August 1999 and was intended to give people a chance to be heard on the web.  Users may be of any age (the web site does not appear to specify this information) and once an account is created may begin writing their blog. Along with posting information, users can also include pictures on their sites (Blogger, 2006).

As with all of these sites, they warn users not to post personal information such as addresses, phone numbers, first and last names, etc.; however, many users are ignoring this warning and posting it anyway. Some users will go so far as to post directions to their house or after-school location(s). Sadly, this gives potential predators a very easy way of finding their victims and turning an already dangerous situation into an even bigger one.

grey_bar

Statistics:

It is estimated that over 50 million people have a MySpace account and an estimated 6 million young people have a blog. Concerning blogs, in a survey conducted by the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, it was discovered that two-thirds of bloggers gave their age and their first name; 60% gave their location and contact information; and one in five included their full name (Kids, Blogs, and Too Much Information, 29 April 2005). Surely, these youngsters are putting themselves in harm’s way by indicating such personal, easily identifiable information.

Though the sites listed above are the most popular and most widely used, most reports involving sexual crimes, and potential ones, have happened as a result of MySpace or various blog sites. "Why is this?" one might ask. Is it because some social-networking sites require a more valid form of identification, such as an e-mail address from an accredited learning institution? Is it because some sights have stronger patrols monitoring the content of users' sites? All of the aforementioned sights have security disclaimers, some more readily-available than others, and all sites claim that the posting of inappropriate material will not be allowed and that it is unlawful to harrass users or put others in danger as a result of the content on one's site, but why would only one or two sites yield the most concern and be talked about in the news so much? Although these questions will not be answered in this white paper, they are questions that do raise concern and should caution readers.

grey_bar

Recent Occurrences and Concerns:

Incidents Involving the Use of Social Networking Sites to Commit Sexual Crimes

Since September 2004, Dateline NBC has had a running segment titled "To Catch A Predator".  From that time, investigations have been done, all taking place in different locations throughout the United States. From New York City to southern California from rural America to urban America, predators are everywhere. Through these investigations, 130 men have been caught and 98 have faced criminal charges (To Catch a Predator, 2006)  Through these investigations, it has become apparent that these online predators come from many different professions and varying socio-economic backgrounds. Men who once were firefighters, doctors, teachers, and even religious leaders have been caught. All had the intention of having sex or at least engaging in sexual behaviors with minors – mostly teens between the ages of 14 and 16. What’s more is that some of these male predators set-out to engage in homosexual acts with young males; it wasn’t just limited to heterosexual acts between older males and younger females. All knew what they were getting themselves into – a possible face-to-face encounter with the supposed teen, but to their surprise, they were actually lured in by Dateline’s crew (decoys from Perverted-Justice) and caught. (For the full story, go to the following web site: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12960173/).

Various news reports have also provided the public with knowledge of how these social networking sites have contributed to the sexual molestation and assault of young children and teens. For example, one report cited a man who molested a 16 year-old girl in September 2005; the two had met through MySpace.com, and he was able to track her down as a result of the information she provided on her site (Website's Power To Overexpose Teens Stirs a Warning, 8 December 2005).  Additionally, according to one source, in March 2006 alone, there were at least three men who were charged with sexually assaulting teenagers they met on MySpace.com. In early April, a 26 year-old-man was charged with sexually assaulting a 15 year-old-girl who he had met through MySpace.com (Why Parents Must Mind MySpace, 5 April 2006).

Closer to home, a 27 year-old Naperville man was recently charged with indecent solicitation of a child, distribution of harmful materials, attempted aggravated criminal sexual abuse, and aggravated criminal sexual abuse all because he lured teenage girls in by means of his MySpace account. His account revealed sexually explicit photos of himself (John R. Wentworth-MyCrimeSpace, 5 June 2006).

In a not-yet-settled case, a 23 year-old male from Massachusettes who was president of his college's Sexual-Assault Victim's Advocacy Group, was  convicted of raping an acquaintance. His MySpace.com site implies that he would never do such a thing as he claims on his site:  "I do a lot of work with domestic violence awareness and I think it’s really crucial to speak out against such an epidemic," (TownOnline.com, 1 June 2006).  Though it remains questionable as to whether or not he did commit this crime, one can see that MySpace - or any other personal information site for that matter - may or may not always reveal the truth about one's life and intentions. In fact, many sexual predators use fake identities complete with false pictures and information to mask their true identities in order to seem more enticing to those with whom they wish to interact. 

Most recently was the story involving the 16 year-old girl from Michigan who disappeared from her family's home and was eventually found in the Middle East to meet a 25 year-old man she had met on the Internet, more particularly, MySpace. The young lady was advised to go back home once she had arrived at the airport in Jordan. She did go back home, thankfully, but one can only wonder why she had wanted to meet this man in the first place (CNN.com-Teen Sneaks to Mideast to Meet MySpace Pal, 9 June 2006).  What were their intentions? Were they honest intentions or false? Authorities are uncertain as to whether or not any crimes have been committed in this case, but it is alarming at the very least.

The aforementioned reports are only a glimpse of what has happened concerning sexual crimes - or potential ones - and social networking sites. Surely, a myriad of other reports have likely been filed but it'd be nearly impossible to find all of them and report on each and every one. By providing a sampling of what has been reported though, one is able to understand the severity and complexity of this issue.


Just About Anyone with Internet Access Can Create an Account - Even Registered Sex Offenders

This issue has recently raised concern because there are currently no laws that deny access to these social networking sites to people who are registered sex offenders in the communities in which they live.  If a man or woman has committed a sex crime which has caused him or her to be put on the list of registered sex offenders, there is nothing stopping this person from creating an account on a social networking site and seeking out new relationships and potential victims.  This causes uneasiness amongst Internet-savvy parents and other concerned adults and individuals.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for example, of the hundreds of registered sex offenders there, about 24 of them have been found to have an apparent MySpace profile.  A registered sex offender will be allowed to access social networking sites, such as MySpace, as long as he/she has no restrictions and/or supervision regarding that issue. Some sex offenders, in contrast, are given supervision which prohibits them from having an account. Once a sex offender has no more supervision though, he/she is liberated and can pursue any social networking site with the aim of starting up an account (JS Online: Local Sex Offenders Might Be On MySpace, 22 April 2006).  Of course, Milwaukee is only one of thousands of cities in the United States and around the world, but this goes to show that the Internet is a place for virtually anyone, from anywhere in the world to roam as long as they have that freedom.

grey_bar

Keeping Children and Teens Safe:

What these young teens do not realize is the messages they are sending as a result of their provocative photos and overall content of their online profile.  A countless number of females in their early teens are wearing next to nothing in their pictures on MySpace and are posing in very provocative positions. Clearly, older men who are attracted to these much younger females are trying to lure them in in order to gain sexual pleasure.  Sadly, these young girls are being taken advantage of, as a result. Though the girls do not intend for this to happen, it is inevitable with the messages their pictures and words are sending.

So how do we keep youngsters safe and equip them with the tools and knowledge necessary to avoid potential danger? Although there is no perfect solution, the following tips offer ways to take steps in combatting such safety issues.


Internet Safety and Monitoring Must Begin at Home

Safety and monitoring must begin at home. In a survey conducted through WiredSafety.org, it was found that one-third of 250 middle school students had a blog but only 5% of the parents were aware of this. Furthermore, the information bloggers are putting on their sites is simply too much. In another survey conducted by the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University, it was discovered that two-thirds of bloggers gave their age and their first name; 60% gave their location and contact information; and one in five included their full name.  Hence, children and teens should be taught not to disclose such personal, idetifiable information on the Internet.    


Internet Safety and Monitoring is a Joint Effort Between Parents and the Web Site Companies

Monitoring of these sites needs to be a joint effort between the companies that publish these web sites and the parents of the children and teens who are creating these sites.  In support of this, an unscientific online survey on msnbc.com showed that 59% of respondents believed that both parents and web site companies need to do more to keep kids safe on the Internet. 25% believed it was up to the parents alone and about 6% believed that it was the sole responsibility of the web site company.  About 9% believed that the issue wasn't really as important and serious as it has been reported. All in all, parents need to take responsibility by filtering out web sites at home that they do not want their children to access. Furthermore, passcodes could be set on home computers in order to block out sites that parents may deem inappropriate for their children.  Web site companies do their share, or so they claim, by hiring security officials to monitor the content that comes in. If content is found to be inappropriate, the user's profile will be removed; however, being that there is so much information on every site and considering the millions of sites that exist, clearly not every bit of inappropriate content is going to be found.  Basically, the web site companies do what they can with the resources they have.


Schools and Libraries Can Block Social Networking Sites

Schools and libraries can do their part by filtering out social networking sites from their computer systems so they cannot be accessed from school.  In fact, a bill titled Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) has been proposed by Pennsylvania Republican Representative Michael Fitzpatrick in order to make social networking sites inaccessible for minors from school and public libraries.  Even though many schools already block such sites, this new law would make it illegal to allow these sites from being accessible and would force all elementary and secondary schools as well as libraries to abide by this law.

National Organizations Taking a Stand 

Such organizations as the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children are making their voices heard in combatting the issue of sexual crimes involving children and the Internet. According to RAINN's site, June is Internet Safety Month. In order to raise awareness of Internet safety issues, the organization offers a quiz for young adults to take to test their Internet safety skills. An explanation behind Internet safety month is offered here, along with a link to the quiz.  Further helping to promote Internet safety, RAINN was sponsoring an online awareness campaign through MySpace.  On a web site, it had posted an announcement asking for volunteers to join their friends list so that the word could be spread about this organization. Click here to view the announcement, but be sure to scroll down the page until you find it.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hosts "CyberTipline" so that anyone with information about a sexual predator can contact the center. The site is very helpful for teens, parents, and other adults as it provides safety tips, phone numbers, and links to other information regarding the sexual exploitation of children. 

grey_bar

Controversy Surrounding Social Networking Sites

Is This Really A Problem?

Though this is an issue, one can wonder, "How much of a concern is this really? Is the media just making this seem worse than it really is?"  Some critics believe that the media only reports on the negative. Where are the stories related to the benefits of teens and social networking sites? In the grand scheme of things, taking into account the total number of people, teens in particular, with MySpace accounts, for example, how many have actually been approached by an online predator? The statistics say that 1 in 5 teens will be approached by an online predator. However, of the 20% who are initially approached by a predator while online, 3% will actually be victimized because they will agree to meeting the unbenknownst-to-them predator in person .  In reality though, the chances of a youngster being a victim of a sexual crime, or any crime for that matter, are higher if the child or family knows the eventual criminal rather than being victimized by a complete stranger [this statistic comes from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children] (Predator Panic? May 2006).  Both parents and teens can express their views on this issue in the BlogSafety forum.

Also, in relation to the number of sex offenders who have a supposed MySpace profile in Milwaukee, this is only a very small percentage of the total number of sex offenders who actually exist. What's more is that as was stated before, accounts can be created falsely.  Just because a person's picture appears on the screen, does not mean that is the actual person behind the computer screen. Though this is questionable, it does cause concern and should not be overlooked.


Criticism Regarding the Potential DOPA law

Although the DOPA law would eliminate the risk of children engaging in potentially dangerous situations while in the educational setting, there are some critics who believe social networking sites are not as awful as they may seem. For instance, Lynne Bradley, director of the American Library Association's office of government relations states that there are "legitimate uses of social networking sites."  Another critic of this potential law also claims that it would be a major overreaction to treat such social networking sites like poison (Congress Targets Social Network Sites, 10 May 2006). 

Furthermore, children may find ways around this. Hacking into computer systems could occur or more conveniently, accessing these sites via wireless devices such as cell phones.  In a recent article, it mentioned how MySpace will soon have wireless capabilities which means that access into one's profile and the sending and receiving of messages will occur via the cell phone, more particularly, the Helio phone (which the article does not mention). Surely, this has parents worried since the information would be so easily accessible for their children and might otherwise be blocked on the family's home computer (Social Networking Sites Go Wireless, 7 April 2006). However, since plans for the mobile MySpace seem only to be in the making for the Helio phone, it would mean that children who own any other type of phone, such as Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, etc. would not have to worry, at least for the time being.

grey_bar

Other Questions to Explore:

Regarding this topic - social networking sites in relation to sexual controversies - a few questions remain unanswered and are worthy of further research. Among these questions are:


Sexual Controversies - home