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February 3, 2006

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Today's MySpace horror story: 'Tipping point'?

The news from Connecticut just may be the "tipping point" that leads to stronger child-protection measures taken by MySpace parent News Corp. As of this writing (Friday morning) picked up by media outlets in more than 100 US cities and in the UK, Canada, and Australia, the story from the Associated Press says that "police are investigating whether as many as seven teenage girls [aged 12-16] have been sexually assaulted by men they met through the popular Web site"

The story doesn't give much more detail about's role in the incidents, except that a suspect in one of them "traveled more than 1,000 miles to meet a Connecticut girl whose profile was posted on the site" and that a Connecticut prosecutor's office has received "numerous complaints from parents" about MySpace. The AP adds that none of the incidents "appeared to have been violent"; the girls told police the sex was consensual.

Until this week, most of the teens-in-MySpace coverage has been pretty balanced, because there are a lot of good things too about this and other blogging/social-networking sites for users of all ages, including teenagers. There's collaborative-writing and -research blogging in classrooms; psychologists talk about the value of self-expression in blogs; there's a vibrant music community in MySpace; and plenty more positives, searchable under "blogs" in this site. A segment on MySpace in NPR's "Talk of the Nation" this week did a great job of representing the full story on these sites, including the vital perspective of actual bloggers!

But at this moment, when an extremely negative story dominates the headlines, let's look at where we are with the child-protection part of the picture. I would call it a huge gray area, where corporate responsibility and the law are concerned, not least because child-pornography and obscenity law doesn't really cover children's self-published content yet. The age of "media convergence" - in which anybody can publish their own home-made media anytime for all the Net-connected world to see - has just begun.

"Right now [child protection] depends on what ethical responsibility the corporation wants to take," said Adam Palmer, chief counsel at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, in a phone interview this week. "There is no law out there that gives parents recourse to force a company to take down a child's content. Some states are working on it, so it's beginning to happen at the state level." He added that "there is this understanding that something needs to be done, but we're not there yet, certainly not at the national level."

The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is the only law protecting children's privacy and giving parents recourse, but it only covers children through the age of 12. Sites like MySpace say in their Terms of Service that users must be at least 13 to register. There is, however, no age verification in these sites, so there's nothing to stop a child from lying about his or her age. If a parent finds a child's content and feels it jeopardizes his/her safety, it's difficult for the parent to get the site to delete the content without the child's cooperation (without her page's URL, user name, password, and email address at the point of registration, and sometimes kids make up that email address, which makes things really difficult). Even with all that, as well as documentation of both guardianship and the child's actual age, the site is not legally obligated to comply with the parent's request if the child is 13+.

But there's another reality to this that seems obvious but could be a nightmare if parents and kids aren't working together: Even if a parent manages to go through all the hoops of getting content removed from a site without a child's cooperation or knowledge, there's nothing stopping a child from simply establishing another free account - at MySpace or any other blogging service (there are many). Even if there were laws backing up parents, deleting children's content could be a full-time job.

Another piece to this reality: It's important that parents not overreact. A lot of the behavior on sites like MySpace has been going on in teen hangouts for generations, but parents weren't privy to it. Now it's on display for everybody - peers, parents, and predators. That fact, as well as some of the behavior is shocking to a lot of parents, and in a small minority of cases truly dangerous to kids, but if we overreact, we're potentially shutting down the one protection kids have: communication and cooperation with the people who love them. So where do we go from here? Tough question. For starters, all the media attention (though some of it a little too sensational) and public awareness-raising are good. They advance an important public discourse in which parents - not just prosecutors, policymakers, and children's advocates - need to be participants. Maybe our participation can help the passage of intelligent state laws in more states than the few to which NCMEC counsel Adam Palmer refers. At the federal level, maybe those well-written state laws will lead to an intelligent extension of COPPA to help protect minors 13-17 too. Maybe.

Certainly, we can all hope this growing public awareness will help corporations like News Corp. take ethical responsibility to protect minors on their services better. I'm not sure what that responsibility is, but it might include: age verification; enough community-monitoring employees to ensure compliance with Terms of Service; and cooperation with parents, law enforcement, and policymakers in the development of sound child-protection practices in their field of business.

Readers, it's always great to hear from you - send comments on this or any kid-tech news subject any time to

Further info

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Web News Briefs
  1. ID theft targets: Kids

    People under 18 are "the fastest-growing target for identity thieves," the Christian Science Monitor reports, citing US Federal Trade Commission figures. The FTC received 255,000 ID theft complaints last year, and - though complaints involving minors are growing fast - they're a much smaller percentage (5%) of overall complaints than that of college students and young adults. At 29%, 18-to-29-year-olds are the largest category. The Monitor tells the story of a sophomore at the University of Colorado, who found out when he applied for a job that his identity had been stolen when he was seven years old. "He learned that he had two names listed under his Social Security number and a sordid credit history." One vulnerability for college students ("over half of all ... info security breaches are at universities") mentioned by the Monitor was a shocker: "Nearly half of all college students have had their grades posted by Social Security number, according to the US Department of Education." At the University of Mississippi, 700 students' SS numbers were listed by their names on a public Web site. The article has a sidebar with tips for protecting against ID theft.

  2. Parents playing videogames

    More than a third of us, in fact. "Thirty-five percent, or about one in three parents, say they play, too, and 80% of that segment play videogames with their children," reports the Associated Press, citing a just-released survey commissioned by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the videogame industry trade group. Among other findings: The average 'gamer parent' is 37 and spends 19 hours a month playing videogames, roughly half that with his/her kids; almost half of gamer parents are women; two-thirds feel that playing videogames has brought their families closer together; 27% began playing videogames around the time their kids started. The AP adds that the ESA, "which is challenging various state laws banning the sales of violent video games to minors, noted that about two of every three parents surveyed agreed it is not the role of the government to protect kids from violent games." [Readers, do you agree with the parents in that last finding? Email me anytime via] Videogame violence was a fairly big topic in tech news last week, though in the sense of a number of smaller stories strung together. A commentary at rounds 'em up.

  3. Lawsuit: iPod ear damage

    A music fan in Louisiana is telling Apple to "turn it down"! John Kiel Patterson is the plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in San Jose federal court this week. The case claims Apple markets its popular digital music player knowing that it can lead to permanent hearing loss if it is played too loudly," the San Jose Mercury News reports. "In addition to damages, the ... suit seeks to force the Cupertino company to upgrade its iPod software to limit the sound output to 100 decibels... and provide earphones that can prevent hearing loss," the Mercury News adds. What's interesting, here, is that Apple does keep it to 100 decibels in iPods sold in Europe (the suit says France required it in 2002). IPods here can reach decibel levels of 115-130. Meanwhile, in an in-depth "reality check" on earbuds' impact, the Washington Post reported that hearing loss is definitely on the increase in the US. Though it certainly predates earbuds, researchers found "increased risk of hearing loss among people who listen to loud music through headphones for extended periods of time." The Post talked to a key source in many news reports, Brian J. Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology at Boston Children's Hospital, who suggests, as a guideline, that people keep earbud-type listening time to an hour a day and volume below 85 decibels, or about 60% of maximum volume, where the risk of hearing damage begins, according to OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

  4. Record label helps family

    Canadian record label Nettwerk Music Group is helping a family fight a file-sharing lawsuit from the RIAA. The label "that is home to Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies and Sum 41, is taking on the RIAA on behalf of Elisa Greubel, a 15-year-old Texan whose father was sued by the recording industry trade group in August 2005 for owning a computer that allegedly shared more than 600 music files," MTV reports. Nettwerk said it would pay all legal fees and any fines for the family if it loses, according to MTV. The RIAA is demanding that the family pay $9,000 to settle, or half that if they comply with its settlement agreement. Nettwerk gave two reasons for supporting the Greubels: 1) because a song by one of its artists, "Sk8er Boi" by Avril Lavigne, was among the nine songs named in the lawsuit and 2) because "suing music fans is not the solution, it's the problem." Later in Nettwerk's press release, CEO Terry McBride added: "Litigation is not 'artist development.' Litigation is a deterrent to creativity and passion and it is hurting the business I love." The lawyer representing the family, Charles Lee Mudd Jr. in Chicago, has defended more than 100 consumers who have been sued by the RIAA, MTV says. He said he took on the case because he feels the RIAA is misusing copyright law, which he said should be used as a shield, not a sword, and the RIAA is - in a lot of cases - going after families that don't know their children are file-sharing.

  5. 'Sex, boys & videogames'

    Let's see, what were the results of all the media coverage last summer of the sexually explicit "Hot Coffee" mod for one of the Grand Theft Auto videogames? It raised public awareness of videogame ratings (a positive result of the ESRB upping GTA: San Andreas's rating from "M" to "AO" because of the mod). It certainly raised awareness that there's sex in some videogames, which probably increased sales for gamemakers. It offered an opportunity for some politicians to take action - e.g., four senators sponsoring federal legislation against sales of violent games to minors (see this item). And Los Angeles City Attorney Rockard Delgadillo, who is running for state attorney general, announced last week he's suing GTA's makers Take Two for failing to disclose the explicit content, which had to be "unlocked" with code found and downloaded from the Web (better late than never, maybe - last August the game's rating was upped to "Adults Only," which meant removal from many retailers' shelves and Take Two released a patch that blocks the content, among other developments). Regardless, all media spotlights on ratings, content, legislation, and lawsuits are good; public awareness is needed (laws are often flawed and blocked in courts, but public attention moves the process along). Meanwhile, how does all this affect "17-year-old boys with advanced computer skills"? - what Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein looked at this week in "Sex, boys & videogames." "Now that kids can surf the Web, rent movies through online retailers, watch hundreds of cable channels and download gangster rap, it's impossible for society to restrict the flow of information to them," Joel suggests. "And even though they're a lot more jaded and harsh, it hasn't made them any more violent or sexually active." But it's good for parents to know what they're confronted with anyway. [For more on the above, see CNET's "Adult-oriented videogames prospering."]

  6. Texting & romance

    Is it appropriate to say "I love you" for the first time or break up a relationship via text message? Or even ask someone out? These are the questions that plague the digital generation, not to mention avid phone texters, males and females alike. But the former are more likely to let the text do the heavy lifting, where Net-aided romance is concerned, USATODAY reports, citing fresh research from the UK's Sheffield Hallam University. Texting's extremely convenient, but convenience usually doesn't inform etiquette, and - here's a big word - the "disinihibition" of electronic communications (reduced inhibition because of reduced signals and cues like body language) has gotten everybody thinking harder about social decorum. It also has something to do with power in relationships, according to USATODAY: "Text has emerged as a way for some daters to do less, act as if they care less and, in doing so, gain the upper hand in a new relationship." The article is more about adults, but teenagers, among the most avid texters and IM-ers, have these questions too. USATODAY also has a sidebar with tips for good textiquette. For more on disinhibition at the teen level, see "Cybersocializing, cyberbullying." For the latest on texting and high school sports, see "e-Recruiting" in the Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch.

  7. Real life in virtual worlds

    It's a controversy that points to what gamers encounter in virtual worlds, and it's significant because it involves World of Warcraft (WoW) - with 5.5 million members, one of the world's most popular MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). "Longtime virtual gamer Sara Andrews didn't know she would cause much of a ruckus when she began recruiting new members of her ... virtual gaming guild, which mostly caters to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender [GLBT] players," CNET reports. "In recruitment messages she posted on WoW, she wrote that the guild was not 'glbt only,' but we are 'glbt friendly'." WoW publisher Blizzard Entertainment said her message "violated the game's harassment policy, specifically the section of that policy regarding sexual orientation." Blizzard said it was trying to avoid potential harassment problems. Members of the GLBT community countered that Blizzard should stop harassers, not silence gay people, CNET reports. Players in WoW and other MMORPGs are recruited into "guilds" or clubs of like-minded players, based on the idea of strength in numbers; CNET says WoW has eight GLBT guilds. It'll be interesting to see how controversies like this play out, and parents probably should know that these online fantasy worlds with real people behind game characters are only in some ways an escape from everyday realities. To understand these games better, see "A Virtual World of Their Own," by Jerald Block, MD. For more MMORPG news, search for "MMORPG" in the search box on any page at

  8. Winamp users take note!

    Tell online music fans at your house to get the latest version of the Winamp media player, if that's the Web player of their choice. The old version of Winamp had a security flaw that could allow outsiders with bad intentions to take control of family PCs. Washington Post security writer Brian Krebs describes the sort of online activity that would be a problem in this case and links to the new version of Winamp.

  9. Software file-sharing: Crackdown in UK

    The tide against file-sharers in the UK appears to be getting stronger, at least for those sharing software files. [Music file-sharers in France and South Korea are reportedly getting some legal breaks (see the 2nd paragraph of "P2P legal news update," 1/20.] The UK's High Court has ordered 10 Internet service providers, including BT and NTL, "to hand over the details of 150 UK customers accused of illegally sharing software," the BBC reports, adding that "over the next two weeks, they are expected to provide the names, addresses and other personal details of the alleged file-sharers" for prosecution. This development follows a 12-month investigation by the UK-based Federation Against Software Theft. The BBC cites the Business Software Alliance, an international anti-piracy trade group, as saying that "about a quarter of software used in the UK is an unlicensed, counterfeit or pirated copy."

  10. Protecting our privacy

    Probably the most significant result of the recent widely reported story about Google fighting a Justice Department subpoena to turn over users' search data was public awareness. Even if the federal court in Colorado orders Google to turn the data over, it's unlikely to affect any Web searcher's privacy, because names or family computers' IP addresses are most likely not associated with that DOJ-requested data, according to SearchEngineWatch and many other reports (Google was fighting the DOJ, it said, to protect trade secrets). But the greater public awareness that there is very little real privacy on the Internet is a very good thing. People of all ages - especially kids, of course - need to be very alert to what information they put into blogs, profiles, Web sites, IMs, emails, game chat, polls, and phone text messages. For more on all this, see "How to foil search engine snoops" at Wired News and the New York Times's brief roundup on this.

  11. Home Web use worldwide

    Ever curious about how many people around the world are actively surfing the Web at home? Nielsen/NetRatings constantly tracks that and has a handy chart at that gives the number in 11 countries, also showing December-over-November growth last year (less than 1% overall). Eight of the countries experienced growth, including Spain (3.46%), Japan (2.59%), and France (1.06%) at the highest rates (the US was just .76%). Home Web use in Brazil, Sweden, and Switzerland, decreased in that one-month period.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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