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Friday, February 06, 2009

MySpace's PR problem

MySpace's image problem is partly everybody's problem. It says something about how we view teens - and how willing we are to accept the complexity of teens-on-the-social-Web and our unprecedented inability to assert control in this space. Though the headlines suggest otherwise, this story is not just about crime. It's more about growing up more publicly than ever and maybe a bit of denial on our part that it's the heightened exposure that's new, not the adolescent behavior, and that that exposure - like everything in this picture - is both good and bad. But let's drill down a bit....

1. The myths we develop

Increasingly, the Web is a mirror of all of human life - not just a communications technology or a global collection of hyperlinked documents or even a channel for individual and collective self-expression. So what we're seeing, learning, worrying, and mythologizing about teens in "real life" is directly related to their online experiences as well.

In "The Myth of Lost Innocence," New York Times commentator Judith Warner describes the experience of two Philadelphia sociologists and specialists in teen sexual behavior, Kathleen Bogle of La Salle University and Maria Kefalas of St. Joseph's University. Even though "teens are, in truth, having sex less and later than they did a decade or two ago," Warner reports, Bogle and Kefalas have "had to struggle mightily to get people out of their 'moral panic' mindset, and make them understand that teens are not 'in a downward spiral' or 'out of control'." People "just don’t believe you," Bogle and Kefalas told Warner. The same is true for anyone trying to present the big picture of online teens. In the current moral panic about predators, the fact that overall child sexual abuse has declined by 51% since the Web took off (between 1990 and '05), according to the National Data Archives on Child Abuse & Neglect), and the fact that Internet-related abuse is well below 1% of the overall child-sexual-exploitation figure get drowned out in 1-millimeter-deep reporting about 90,000 predators having been deleted from among some 150 million MySpace profiles. [No one knows, much less reports on, the more important question of whether those profiles led to any communications with teens or how teens deal with them (delete, ignore, block, or reply?). In fact, there have been zero reports that any of those 90,000 offenders have been prosecuted for illegal contact with teens on MySpace (and that would be covered if it happened). For a sample of what we do know about predation risk, see this.]

Meanwhile, amid all the numbers-out-of-context noise, parents, counselors, educators, and social workers can't hear or don't know where to listen for the signals they do need to hear. As Warner puts it, "details concerning exactly which children are suffering, flailing or failing, and in what numbers, and how and why, and what we can do about it – are lost."

In focusing on worst-case scenarios and making them the reality of all online teens, we do parents a disservice and teens a double disservice - by selling them short and distorting the picture of teen social-networking in the eyes of those with authority over them. See also "Chances are, your kids are savvier online than you think" in the Toronto Globe & Mail and New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope's "The Myth of Rampant Teen Promiscuity."

2. How did we get here?

MySpace has become the subject of this kind of hyperbole-fueled, negative myth. Having watched its emergence as a vibrant social and media-sharing tool and music community from mid-2005, I've puzzled over how MySpace got from there to here - how it has come to be almost demonized in the eyes of the adult population, or the portion of it that views the social site through either a strictly law-enforcement lens or that of an adult with no interest in trying to understand social networking in young people's terms.

Its first full year as a Fox Interactive property, 2006, was telling. MySpace found itself, I later told Business Week, in the middle of a "perfect storm" of parental concern development. The converging conditions were:

  • Its sudden arrival out of nowhere (only as far as parents and other adults - including reporters - were concerned, and adults did not understand this social-networking thing).
  • Its exponential, viral growth that year (a story that a lot of uncomprehending reporters were compelled to write, well before there was any known social-media research to cite).
  • A high-profile news story out of Connecticut about a police investigation into whether "as many as seven teenage girls" had had sexual encounters with men they'd met in MySpace. It was a tipping point (see my commentary on that, 2/3/06). Though similar stories have been rare since then, this Connecticut one led to Fox hiring former federal prosecutor Hemanshu Nigam as its chief security officer and turned state attorneys general into social-networking watchdogs (Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, co-leads the AGs' Multi-State Working Group on Social Networking that created the Internet Safety Technical Task Force on which I served).
  • The launch of Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series, which in no way represented risks to youth on the social Web or even child sexual exploitation in general, but distorted associations were made (see "Predators vs. cyberbullies: Reality check").
  • DOPA and a mid-term election. All the above made for great stump speeches about championing child protection, an uncontroversial way to garner votes, and the ill-conceived Delete Online Predators Act, which never reached the Senate but passed the House with an overwhelming majority (maybe partly because voting against it would've somehow looked in the voting record like a vote for predators?). The law would've done more to delete teens from social-networking sites at school than to "delete online predators" (see this item).

    Interestingly, though, the clouds of that perfect storm started gathering much earlier on - right at the beginning, in fact. Besides the lifelike picture she paints, I'm seeing in danah boyd's account of what drew teens to MySpace, in her doctoral dissertation, that the site's roots in the music scene have a role in the challenge it faces today too: "Most early adopter teens were attracted to MySpace [in 2004] through one of two paths: bands or older family members. Teens who learned of MySpace through bands primarily followed indie rock music or hip-hop, the two genres most popular on MySpace early on. While many teens love music, they are often unable to see their favorite bands play live because bands typically play in 21+ venues. MySpace allowed these teens to connect with and follow their favorite bands.... Given its popularity among musicians and late-night socialites, joining MySpace became a form of subcultural capital.... Early adopter teens who were not into music primarily learned about the site from a revered older sibling or cousin who was active in late-night culture. These teens viewed MySpace as cool because they respected these family members.... While teens often revere the risky practices of [older nightclub and concert goers], many adults work to actively dissuade them from valuing them. By propagating and glorifying 20-something urban cultural practices and values, MySpace managed to alienate parents early on."

    This takes us back to my first points about 1) how behavior, culture, and perceptions offline are mirrored online, and 2) how myths develop out of fears and too much emphasis on the negative part of a phenomenon, which is only a fraction of the reality. Which brings me to the final factor I've seen in MySpace's PR problem: the development of the online safety field itself. The field got its start in and is still dominated by law enforcement and its expertise - all those good people in local police departments and state Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces giving Internet-safety talks in schools about criminal activity in chat, instant messaging, on cellphones and on the Web. Law enforcement people are experts in crime, not adolescent behavior and development (so should they really be giving talks about cyberbullying?), and the latter, certainly not crime, is the lionshare of what's going on with and among teens in social network sites - good, bad, and neutral. What's happening with teens on the social Web is infinitely more about adolescent development than about technology or crime.

    Yes, we need to teach children how to keep away from predators of any form, online and offline, but the public discussion has to broaden to reflect reality, from the negatives - the full spectrum of online risk (including noncriminal bad behavior like bullying and harassment) - to all the rest, teen online socializing in general. As for the dark side, even one exploitation case is too many but, for perspective, it helps to keep in mind that what the attorneys general are talking about - social-networking-related crime involving minors (see Newsweek) - represents only a fraction of Internet-initiated sexual crimes against minors, and the latter figure itself, the Crimes Against Children Research Center tells me, "was too low to calculate" in two national samples it used in studies on child sexual exploitation (for more context, see this).

    3. MySpace's child-protection record

    At my last check of Google News, nearly 900 news outlets around the world ran reports this week that MySpace "evicts," "boots," "deletes," etc. 90,000 predators (the headline at India's was "No space for sex offenders on MySpace"). For brevity, the headlines are in the present tense, of course (I used to write headlines at a newspaper), but the present tense suggests this just happened this week.

    What MySpace wrote in a letter to Attorney General Roy Cooper of North Carolina about all this offers another perspective that rarely gets play in the news media:

    "Some reports wrongly suggested that there are 90,000 RSOs [registered sex offenders] on MySpace today. This is wildly inaccurate and irresponsible. All 90,000 profiles were removed from MySpace upon discovery and preserved for law enforcement investigations. Such inaccurate reports send the message to other sites that they will be publicly criticized and punished for taking similar steps to protect teens online. While much is being made of the increase in the number of RSOs removed from MySpace since the inception of our program, the fact is that as long as the program is working, the aggregate number of RSOs removed will increase - it is a cumulative number representing all of the profiles deleted over time. The program has been a tremendous success: not only have 90,000 RSOs been removed from MySpace, but MySpace has seen a 36% reduction in RSOs attempting to access the site year over year."

    Concerned parents may be interested in this lengthy bulleted list of child-safety steps MySpace has taken on the site, at its headquarters, and in Washington. But short of shutting down its site (which wouldn't "help," because there are zillions of social network services, tools, and technologies provided by businesses worldwide), MySpace or any other social-media business couldn't possibly bar all hurtful or criminal activity from its site - anymore than the phone company can keep people from having any arguments on the phone. Technologies, good business practices, and laws may be able to help keep users safer, but they can't change human behavior or nature. That takes education.

    Related links

  • John Palfrey, author of Born Digital: a print interview in ComputerWorld, a video interview at CNET, and a YouTube video of a keynote he gave at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, which he directs
  • Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital: a video interview on YouTube
  • Larry Magid and me: 2006 was also the year I met and first interviewed danah boyd, who was a source for our book published that year, MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking.

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  • Thursday, February 05, 2009

    Google-brand social mapping

    Google just launched its version of social-mapping called "Latitude." It reportedly works on a lot of phones, not just Google's own Android, and people get the little app by going to Google's page on the subject, typing their mobile numbers into the box and getting a text message from Google with a download link in it, ComputerWorld reports. "The idea is you install Latitude on your cell phone and invite your geeky friends to do the same. Then they can see exactly where you are on a Google Map on their phone or the Web, and you can see them. Feel like hiding from the world? Tweak the privacy settings and you disappear. Or you can just X out certain friends when you're no longer feeling so friendly toward them." So if it sounds a little invasive, good, that means you'll work through the privacy features (and help your kids do the same). In fact, it's so easy to get that you might want to talk with your early adopters right up front about privacy features and why they're important. Latitude is not new, though. Three-year-old Loopt, also in Mountainview, Calif., is a pioneer in the social-mapping space, and particularly in user safety and privacy. Coverage in Forbes and CNET too.

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    Another imposter profile

    Our ConnectSafely forum gets reports of these all the time - posing as someone else, including fictional people, is not unique to any social site or technology - but this case is particularly ugly. "Eighteen-year-old high school student Anthony Stancl is accused of creating a Facebook profile belonging to a nonexistent teenage girl and then, between approximately the spring of 2007 and November of 2008, using it to convince more than 30 of his male classmates to send in nude photos or videos of themselves," CNET reports. He then proceeded to blackmail them, saying he's post their images online if they didn't have sex with him. At least seven of the boys did. Here are two early cases of imposter profiles that came to my attention, involving what I'd call "extreme cyberbullying."

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    Wednesday, February 04, 2009

    Digital dating abuse

    Sexting (sending naked photos of oneself or peers) is one form of it. Other forms: nonstop text messages from/to a boyfriend or girlfriend (or anyone), a digital form of stalking; sending around unbecoming photos or videos of someone via phone or Web; hacking into a peer's profile and cruelly misrepresenting him in comments that look like they're coming from him; or posting mean comments to someone in her social network profile or via an app like "Honesty Box." "The behaviors can be a warning sign that a teenager may become a perpetrator or a victim of domestic violence," reports the New York Times, citing the view of the San Francisco-based Family Violence Prevention Fund. In fact, the Fund, a public-awareness nonprofit, calls this "digital dating violence," not just "abuse" (it can also be called "cyberbullying"). If not physical, it certainly can do violence to people lives, including the lives of young people who send nude photos of "themselves." For example, this month six high school students in western Pennsylvania were charged with child pornography, three girls with distribution (for taking and sending nude photos of themselves) and three boys with possession, a commentator at CNET reports. The Minneapolis Star Tribune today reported that "all but one of the students accepted a lesser misdemeanor charge, partly to avoid a trial and further embarrassment." But they were charged with serious crimes, and two Florida teens fared much worse in 2007 (see "Teens' child-porn convictions upheld"). "Whatever the outcome, the mere fact that child pornography charges were filed at all is stirring debate among students and adults," according to the Star Tribune. Law professor Mary Leary wrote in the Virginia Journal of Law and Policy last summer that, though prosecution in such cases shouldn't be mandatory, it "should remain an option for the state."

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    Signs of dating abuse

    Intrusive behavior like 24/7, high-frequency texting can be one of the warning signs, but the underlying issue is control. The New York Times cites a study last July in the Archives of Pedatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which found that "more than one-third of the 920 students questioned were victims of emotional and physical abuse by romantic partners before they started college." It seems to me one of the most important things to tell our kids is that - no matter how flattering possessiveness, jealousy, and constant attention may feel - too often these behaviors are much more about control than love. Not every household has or can enforce rules about when cellphones, laptops, and connected game consoles are turned off, but such rules can not only help regulate usage; they can serve as back-up when a teen needs a reason to ask for some space. I hope it never gets this far for anyone reading this, but here are some signs of dating abuse in the Times article: Victims "are more likely to engage in binge drinking, suicide attempts, physical fights and sexual activity. And the rates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use are more than twice as high in abused girls as in other girls the same age." See also "How social influencing works."

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    Tuesday, February 03, 2009

    Sex offenders in social sites: Consider the facts

    The only way we can have solid, progressive parent-child and public discussions about children's online safety is if we can keep the facts in mind when we read the latest news about predators in Facebook and MySpace - facts based on consistent, peer-reviewed academic research about online risk. So here are the key facts to keep in mind:

  • Not all children are equally at risk of Net-related sexual exploitation (see "Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies" from the US's Internet Safety Technical Task Force, with a summary of all child-online-safety research to date).
  • A child's psychosocial makeup and family environment are better predictors of risk than the technology he or she uses (also from the ISTTF report).
  • The kids most at risk offline are those at risk online (see "Profile of a teen online victim" and the ISTTF report).
  • Sexual exploitation as a result of Internet activity (much less social networking) is statistically rare - "too low to calculate in the two national samples we conducted," the Crimes Against Children Research Center has told me.
  • The vast majority of teens - 91% - use social sites to keep in touch with friends they see frequently (mostly at school), not strangers ('07 Pew/Internet study).
  • The offenders in the vast majority of child sexual abuse cases are not strangers to their victims (multiple sources).
  • Despite the establishment of one or more public profiles of "teens" (fake profiles) on MySpace by the Pennsylvania attorney general's Child Predator Unit, "there has apparently not been one successful sting operation initiated on MySpace in the more than two years during which these sting profiles have been in existence" (see "Pennsylvania case study: Social networking risk in context").

    Even one case is far too many, but parents deserve to know that - no matter how many news reports they read about predators in social network sites, including this week's - the risk of online kids being exploited by a stranger in such a site is statistically extremely low, and even more unlikely for healthy teens with engaged parents. Parents may find it helpful, too, to read such reports critically - maybe with their online teens, asking them about their own experiences, if any, with strangers in social sites and what they do about them.

    Consider, too, the possibility that there may be other interests in addition to children's safety involved in criticizing a whole body of research and keeping predator fears fanned, including political and financial interests (see Washington policy analyst Adam Thierer's commentary and this New York Times article quoting the CEO of a company with significant financial interests in promoting the adoption of age verification of online kids, a serious privacy issue). As CNET blogger Caroline McCarthy put it, "Shock-and-awe press tactics aren't the way to go, especially because threats on the Web are much more complicated than they may appear."

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  • Stalking texters, sexting monsters: A bit of help

    You wouldn't think that the guy who made "Extreme PB&J Sandwich Making" would be an excellent source of advice on establishing digital boundaries. But YouTube and post-YouTube star Brandon Hardesty delivers brilliantly in his 4.5 minute video "What If" in If your kid even knows someone who knows someone who's getting pressured by a peer to send nude photos of him or herself via cellphone, you might appreciate watching Brandon playing the roles of Mom, Dad, guidance counselor, and boyfriend as potential confidants in a situation like this. You might also love the quite fruity "Pressure Pic Problem," providing a slightly less agnostic perspective than Brandon's. I did. is brilliant too. It's co-created and -sponsored by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, Ad Council, and Office on Violence Against Women "to address new and complicated problems between teens who are dating or hooking up — problems like constant and controlling texting, pressuring for nude pictures, and breaking into someone's email or social-networking page." Besides the videos, which make for great family discussion talking points, there are "Call-Out Cards" with little messages like "I appreciate your concern for my location EVERY TWO MINUTES" that can be downloaded, emailed, or sent to MySpace or Facebook friends and annoying acquaintances. There are also a discussion forum where people can give and receive advice from peers and a Help section where they can reach out for professional help. BTW, for a bit of context: Nielsen Mobile reports that a typical US teen sends and receives more than 1,700 text messages a month (that's more than 50 a day).

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    Monday, February 02, 2009

    Email for kids: If? When? How?

    Is someone at your house begging for his or her very own email account? Maybe because "all my friends have one"? The question usually comes up before middle school, when "everybody" is getting IM accounts and cellphones too, as - developmentally - the social scene kicks into gear. As kid virtual worlds get increasingly ubiquitous, though, adding another social outlet, the pressure to get any single communications tool may ease somewhat. In fact, pretty soon kids won't even care about email addresses because it seems most teens only use email when communicating with adults (they prefer messaging via social-network sites). We'll see (nobody's researched this yet, as far as I've seen). Anyway, in case you'd like to see a bunch of other parents' views on this question, there was a lively debate (in Comments) over at Slashdot about giving kids email accounts and how (it is "news for nerds," after all, so there's some great stuff about proxy servers and technical means of spam avoidance), as well as some interesting evidence of different parenting schools of thought (don't be surprised by the one or two off-color comments, though they're much in the minority). We didn't feel rushed to get our 10-year-old one - it seemed more a necessity as we were traveling overseas, so he could keep in touch with friends independently. Now that he's 11 and we're back in the States, he hardly ever checks or uses it and, interestingly, IM seems to have been replaced by Google Chat and phone texting as the primary social tools of 6th graders. Would love to get fellow parents' views on electronic communications, kid-style - via anne[at], or in our forum at

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