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MySpace & Related Sites: Safety Tips

Subject: SAFETY TIPS FOR MySPACE & RELATED SITES - Posted: 3/19/2006 8:21:20 AM
Questions about myspace.com and what to do if you have a problem
Why Be Concerned about MySpace and Other Such Sites?
MySpace.com is currently one of the most popular on-line social networking services, especially among today’s teen and young adult “netizens.” Reporting over 13.5 million visitors in April 2005 (up from approximately 6.5 million in January, and reported at 17 million in late May 2005), it has become the hottest site for people to share information and interact with each other.

MySpace.com
This surge in popularity could be attributable to the lure of the extensive collection of communication options offered by the site, or it may just be a manifestation of the faddish nature of today’s young people. In any event, the sheer number (and relative ages) of its usual clientele, demands that it be realistically considered as a prime target of harassers, cyberbullies, child predators, scam artists, and other unscrupulous individuals.

Regrettably, from the standpoint of Internet safety, MySpace suffers from the same two basic shortcomings that plague most other major providers of free communications services.

1. There is a VERY lopsided ratio of registered members to “moderators” available to enforce the site’s Terms of Service (TOS). MySpace has approximately a dozen people to monitor all user activities on the site. Accordingly, they rely on the members to inform them when site policies have been violated.

2. Even when a violation IS substantiated, in most instances, there is an inherent inability to effectively bar an abuser from a free site. Since the information provided in the membership application is NOT routinely verified, it is relatively easy to open a completely fictitious account under a new persona.

So, What is the Answer?

Given these above realities, it is incumbent upon EACH user (and the parents of minor users) to know the proper procedures for reporting abuse AND how to effectively deal with unwanted contact, harassment, etc. Before we discuss these factors, let’s take a look at some of the specific aspects associated with MySpace.com:

Safety Issues

1. As mentioned earlier, there is NO verification of membership information. Because of this, and the huge popularity of the site, it is NOT uncommon for underage minors to obtain membership despite the site’s minimum age restriction of 14 years old. Given the relative social inexperience and trusting nature of young users, it can be expected that many may become the primary targets of child predators and other bad actors.

2. The members of MySpace rely heavily on the use of detailed “profiles” to find and meet others with similar interests. Although the user has primary control over WHAT information IS ultimately displayed, most minors are only too eager to provide as much personal information as possible. Despite the fact that inclusion of telephone numbers, street addresses, and last names in a member’s profile are forbidden under the site’s TOS, age and city/state of residence information is AUTOMATICALLY populated into a member’s profile, based on the birthday and zip code fields required for completion of the initial membership form.

3. The site also provides a module designed for members to “rate” each other (from COLD to HOT!), based on their photos and other profile content. While on the surface this may appear to a harmless exercise, such “comparisons” can be strong catalysts for “flaming,” cyberbullying and outright harassment, especially among teenage members.

4. Another risk is that information regarding a member’s school is encouraged to be inputted for support of the site’s “Classmate Finder” service. This database can be searched by SCHOOL NAME and STATE in order to identify all members that may attend a particular institution. From the standpoint of protecting a minor’s personal information, this can be VERY risky.

Despite the issues noted above, the site owners genuinely desire to provide a safe and enjoyable social venue. This is manifested in several recent undertakings:

1. Very comprehensive Terms of Service guidelines have been developed for the site. These appear to be more in-depth than then those published by similar sites and specific restrictions are clearly outlined (www.myspace.com/misc/terms.html).

2. When it is suspected that a member does NOT meet the minimum age restrictions, the site is very responsive regarding parental requests to terminate their membership. (They encourage the parent to do this with their child first, as a lesson in responsible and safe Internet use.) If they learn that someone is underage, they delete their profiles and terminate their membership, unilaterally.

3. The site administrators have enlisted the help of WiredSafety.org and our Executive Director and cyberlawyer, Parry Aftab, to provide a comprehensive on-line list of safety “tips” and to make recommendations for how the site can educate its users about safe and responsible Internet use. Such information is intended to better protect its members from harassment, exploitation, etc. It is strongly recommended that ALL current and prospective members review the pages which can be found at: http://www.myspace.com/misc/safetytips.html.

So How Does a Parent Protect their Child from Becoming a Victim?

Virtually ALL of the experts that are concern with Internet safety, as it pertains to minors, agree that the MOST effective way to accomplish this is by the PARENT becoming integrally involved in their child’s on-line activities.

The actual depth of this involvement depends largely on the amount of trust that a parent has in knowing that their child understands what should and should NOT be done when “surfing” the ‘net. The amount of trust shown will almost certainly vary with age, level of maturity, and past performance.

Some parents take the direct approach by restricting Internet access to times when they (the parents) are available to physically monitor the child’s use. Others may resort to the installation of monitoring software so they can view a child’s surfing habits, after the fact. (We like Spectorsoft’s products, which you can find at spectorsoft.com or software4parents.com.)

Indirect methods rely on the fact that a set of Internet usage “rules” have been agreed upon by both parties and that the child will not only abide by this agreement, but will be completely forthcoming if they inadvertently experience “trouble” on the ‘net.

Some parents may decide to take the middle ground by locating computers in central areas around the home, such as dens, living rooms, etc. Usually, they will configure the system to automatically block access to certain chats, pornographic sites, etc. The belief is that a child will be less likely to try to surf prohibited sites, or engage in other risky behavior, if their actions can be readily viewed by other family members.

Regardless of what actions a parent may choose to take, the reality is that kids will be kids and that, curiosity, peer pressure, or just plain boredom will sometimes trump common sense and caution. In other words, either by ignorance or design, a minor CAN be expected to get into trouble, at some point in time. When this happens, it will be up to the PARENT to step in and take the appropriate actions.

However, proper PREVENTION can help drastically minimize the odds of your child becoming a victim of exploitation, cyberbullying, and/or on-line harassment. Knowledge IS the key. Accordingly, it is suggested that parents and their children openly discuss what your children are doing online and the possible dangers related to Internet use. A very good start would be to JOINTLY browse the various pages at http://www.wiredsafety.org/safety/index.html. Here you can find comprehensive information and additional links pertaining to ALL facets of web safety. (Our Internet safety information at InternetSuperheroes.org uses the popular Marvel comic characters, such as Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, to teach children safe, private and responsible technology use.

Our upcoming program, Internet Safety 1-2-3! will provide an easy set of activities parents can use to learn more about what their children are doing online and using mobile devices, and how to keep them safer while doing so.

Parry always says that the greatest single risk our children face in connection with the Internet is being denied access, and that she has a solution for everything else. If you let your children know that you are there for them if things go wrong online or offline, you will have done the single most important thing to keeping them safe. You are the first line of defense when it comes to keeping your children safe. Be worthy.

Sign up for one of our parent distance learning modules, available for free at wiredsafety.org, or read our parenting online guide at wiredsafety.org, or our parents guide at wiredkids.org. You can view our Internet safety video for parents – The 4Ps: Privacy, Predators, Pornography and Pop-ups at our site, or download it for viewing on your computer. You are also welcome to make a copy for your own use and the use of your friends and school. If you are an organization and want to use the video, just drop us an e-mail at media@wiredsafety.orgmedia@wiredsafety.org and we’ll see how we can help.

What to Do If You or Your Child Experiences Problems on MySpace

Both technical (site functionality) AND non-technical difficulties (harassment, inappropriate behavior, etc) can be reported through a central “Contact MySpace” email system that can be accessed via a prominently displayed tab at the bottom of their primary navigation pages.

Upon selection, a form will be displayed requesting the following information:

- “Name” (or MySpace nick)

- “Email address”

- “Phone number” (if personal contact is desired of deemed necessary)

- “Subject” (pull-down list of common topics available, or OTHER)

- Description Box (be as detailed as possible)

This form is the primary contact method for almost ALL problems, requests, suggestions, and general comments. However, one MAJOR exception to this policy….that is in the area of account cancellations. The on-line form states “We will not honor delete requests sent via this form.”

How to Delete a MySpace Account Belonging to an Underage Member

As stated earlier, MySpace is subject to many of the same problems that are also inherent to the all other public communication sites. One particular difficulty, which is probably due to its phenomenal popularity, is the fact that some accounts are opened by underage members, in direct violation of their minimum age requirements.

For parents, the procedures for deletion of an underage MySpace account fall into the following two primary categories. Regardless of which method is utilized, the site promises that ALL information contained in a deleted account is purged from the site.

1. A parent decides that a child’s account should be closed, and the child is cooperative, the normal procedures are:

- Logon to MySpace

- Click “Account Settings”

- On the “Change Account Settings” page, click on “-Cancel Account-“

- Click on the “Cancel My Account” button in the confirmation box.

- Include remarks if desired; then click on the second “Cancel My Account” button to complete the request process.

- A cancellation message will be sent to the email address of record. Replying to this email is required in order to complete the automated account closure process.

2. Alternative Account Closure

Unfortunately, in addition to lying about their age, many kids will use a bogus e-mail address when applying for membership, or may profess to have forgotten their passwords. These circumstances can make it virtually impossible to use the process outlined above.

MySpace recognizes this reality and has established special account cancellation procedures. When a parent wishes to close an underage account and either the child is uncooperative, or a technical difficulty precludes the use of the general account closure method, the following procedures can be used.

- The first step involves the parent emailing the site, via the contact form discussed earlier, to request that the subject account be closed. This request SHOULD include the minor’s URL number in the form www.myspace.com/17738440. This information can be located on the left-hand side of the Welcome page that is displayed following initial logon.

If the URL is included in the email, the site will review the account for any definite indications that the account owner is underage. If definite proof IS found, the child’s profile WILL be removed and an email will be sent to the email address on the account explaining WHY the account was deleted. (If there is no indication of the teen being under 14, MySpace.com staff will contact the parent and arrange for a phone verification before canceling the account. See below.)

- If the child’s URL is NOT indicated in the cancellation request, the parent is emailed with a request for the information and that the parent work WITH the child in removing the account through normal cancellation procedures discussed above.

- If a parent cannot convince the child to voluntary remove the account, etc, site personnel will request a contact phone number in order to confirm the parental status of the requestor. Upon successful verification, the minor’s account will be removed while on the phone with the parent.

Some parents or others have tried to shut down accounts of their child’s schoolmates. Although MySpace.com will terminate an account if the page shows that they are really under 14 and have lied about their age when registering, we strongly recommend that you don’t take things into your own hands. Instead of contacting the site, reach out to the other parents, letting them know (if they don’t already) that their child has a page at Myspace.com (or any other similar site or profile). Many parents supervise their child’s account and would not appreciate someone taking things into their own hands. Others want to see what has been posted.

Point the other parents to Wiredsafety.org with any questions. We also have powerpoint presentations that can be used by parent and school groups on Myspace.com and similar sites. Reach out to us at media@wiredsafety.orgmedia@wiredsafety.org for a copy. Parry and other Wiredsafety.org volunteers also do speaking engagements on these and other topics affecting parents and kids online.

Exactly What Information is My Child Broadcasting to the World?

Publishing a public profile is a great way to meet others of the same age group or that may share similar interests. For members, it is a quick way to establish common ground for subsequent communications with others.

However, profiles can also provide unscrupulous individuals with preliminary information that can lead to a user being targeted as victim of malicious attacks or exploitation by scam artists and/or child predators. Even the inclusion of photographs can spur harassment. For example, any ethnicity that is obvious in a published photo can draw immediate racial slurs from bigoted members. A provocative or sexually suggestive picture will invariably result in contact from those with strictly prurient interests. A pic of an obvious minor is also sure to draw the attention of your typical cyberbully, or worse, a child predator. In essence, the question is “What constitutes too much information?” Generally, the following guidelines should ALWAYS be considered if using a public profile is desired:

Never publicly post in ANY online forum any personally identifiable information. What is personally identifiable information? It’s any personal information that could be used to find or identify you in real life. This could be such information as your real name, address, telephone number, cell number, your sports team, health club, or links to websites or other profiles that might give this information away.
Even without meaning to, you can give this information away by taking a pic in front of your car with your license plate, home address, workplace, school, etc showing in the photo. You may be wearing a school or team t-shirt, a scout uniform or baseball cap that might give away ways of finding you offline. This information could be misused to steal your identity, guess your passwords, cyberstalk, cyberbully or harass you or by predators who really want to hurt you.
Always keep in mind that some individuals will maintain contact with the intent to glean as many small bits of information as possible. When viewed as a whole, these seemingly innocuous facts can used to determine a prospective victim’s actual location. They may use multiple screen names and user profiles, pretending to be other people, to gather more information from someone who might not be willing to continue talking to a stranger beyond a few conversations.
An easy guide for kids, tweens and teens is to tell them never to post anything that their parents and principal shouldn’t see.
On a related note, NEVER post any information or pictures that you would NOT want to be broadcast to the entire world. Remember, once you hit that send button, you will have virtually NO control over how this information will be used, or who may end up viewing it. A typical scenario involves one member persuading another to send them sexually explicit pictures of themselves. This can eventually lead to threats of publishing the pictures Internet-wide, or forwarding them to a victim’s friends, coworkers, and family members. Can you even imagine the level of embarrassment you may be forced to suffer?
It would be very prudent for parents to periodically check the content of their child’s profile. On MySpace, as with most similar services, this can be done by simply having your child logon to the site, then clicking on a link that is identified as “View My Profile.” Anything that you believe is inappropriate should be immediately removed by choosing “Edit My Profile” and your child should be reminded of WHY such information is dangerous. Monitoring software, such as Spectorsoft.com, can also keep you apprised of any changes in your child’s pages.

http://www.wiredsafety.org/internet101/myspaceguide.html

media@wiredsafety.orgmedia@wiredsafety.org

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