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Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Hugely popular Web site faces backlash over hidden dangers

US parents are concerned about what may be lurking on Myspace.com after some graphic death threat surfaced

DPA , SAN FRANCISCO

Parry Aftab, executive director of non-profit WiredSafety.org, an internet safety group to protect children from online pornography, poses at her home in Wyckoff, New Jersey, on June 9, last year. On MySpace.com, teenagers can find kindred spirits who share their love of sports, their passion for photography or their crush on a Hollywood star. However, parents have expressed concern about some of the content of the Web site.

PHOTO: AP

Death threats and pedophiles were the subjects of the day on Friday at the wildly popular teenage Internet site Myspace.com, as the company seeks to soften a backlash of concern about its potential dangers.

The phenomenally successful social networking site has become a key communications tool for teenagers, amassing almost 60 million members since its founding two years ago. It was bought last year by Rupert Murdochs's News Corp for almost US$600 million in a move designed to help the media conglomerate tap into the key demographic.

The site allows users to post their profiles, pictures and weblogs, meet and chat with other members via e-mails and instant messages, share music, and join forums for group discussions.

On Friday, news reports said that 20 school students had been suspended and one expelled in connection with the posting of a graphic death threat against a classmate on MySpace.com.

Police are investigating the comments about a student at TeWinkle Middle School in Orange County as a possible hate crime.

But parents of the 20 students threatened with expulsion say their children were victims of the hysteria about Myspace.com since they had been unaware that the group they were joining contained the explicit threats.

In the other cases that surfaced on Friday, federal authorities said they were preparing charges against two men who allegedly used the Web site to set up sexual encounters with underage girls in Connecticut.

The prosecution represents the first federal sex cases involving the popular networking site, though dozens of local prosecutors have cases involving similar circumstances.

The men allegedly met the girls, aged 11 and 14, through Myspace.com, where members are never asked for any evidence to confirm their identity or age, even though the Web site says it limits access to users aged 14 and over.

Many of the kids who do use the site are clearly unaware of its dangers. Teenagers routinely brag about their sexual escapades or their use of drugs and alcohol, and often post revealing pictures of themselves.

"It's crazy what goes on there," said Colleen Baer, who insists on regularly vetting her 15-year-old daughter's myspace activities.

"She was really upset at first. She thought it was a huge invasion of her privacy. But then she realized that anyone could see her profile and blog -- and she knows she has to be careful," Baer said.

Millions of other kids however still delight in the concept of an online world free of parental and school supervision, and reveal too much about themselves to the world at large, said psychologist David Hoffman, who has studied the effects of the Internet on teenage social practices.

"It's very appealing because it offers such huge potential for socialization with friends, friends of friends and strangers who contact you just because they like your profile," he said.

"In the physical world it takes time for us to build up trust and relationships. Online those vital steps are sometimes thrown out the window," he said.

Michelle Collins, director of the Exploited Child Unit at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in San Francisco, said teenagers who use the site are "basically writing in their diary for the whole world to see."

"It's as dangerous as giving your name to a predator in a chat room," she warned.

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