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Teenage angst? Is the MySpace party busted?

by Jordan Green

It has become an essential component of the Greensboro music scene in the past year, providing a forum for bands to post recordings, list upcoming performances and network. Now a growing number of Guilford County parents are taking steps to restrict their children’s access to the MySpace website as national media stories raise alarms about the potential for adult sexual predators to target children through real-time interactions on the internet.

Kirk Sparks, president of the Jamestown Middle School parent-teacher association and a volunteer coach at the school where his son is a student, said he discovered some of his son’s friends scrolling through the website.

‘“These boys hanging around with my son, they have what they call a space on there. You can look at pictures and comments that I as a parent felt shouldn’t be on there. My son doesn’t need to go look at girls on a website not wearing a lot of clothes and then chat with her. And if I had a daughter I would not let her go on it either.’”

MySpace, which was launched in January 2004, is now up to 63 million users, making it the second most viewed website after Yahoo.com, said Dani Dudeck, a spokeswoman for the company in Los Angeles.

Sparks zapped e-mails with links to two national media articles about Myspace.com to Jamestown Middle School PTA members on March 9. Parents across the district also took notice of an NBC ‘“Dateline’” report in January that alerted parents to the problem of teenagers not realizing that the information they post on Myspace.com accounts, including physical addresses, is accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

In what may be the first documented incident of child molestation enabled by Myspace, the Associated Press reported in late February that two men were arrested in separate incidents in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for sexually assaulting teenage girls, ages 11 and 14, whom they located on the website.

Though not linked to Myspace.com, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced on March 15 that federal law enforcement officials working with allied governments infiltrated an internet chat-room called ‘“Kiddypics & Kiddyvids’” that was used to facilitate the exchange of what he described as ‘“graphic images of child pornography ‘— including live streaming video of adults sexually molesting children and infants.’”

The investigation resulted in the arrest of 27 individuals in the United States, Canada, Australia and England.

With that swirl of developments in the background, several parents in positions of leadership have raised their antenna in response to the burgeoning popularity of MySpace.

‘“I hope that parents realize and get the message that MySpace is incredibly dangerous for kids,’” said Terrina Picarello, health and safety chair for the Guilford County Council of PTAs. ‘“It’s not any different than having a loaded gun in your house. You better have one-hundred percent supervision.’”

Picarello, a family and marriage therapist in Summerfield, said teenagers are socialized to be nice, and when adults ask them for personal information they often readily comply with potentially tragic requests.

‘“You assume that a four year old is going to run out into the street if you don’t hold their hand,’” she said. ‘“Parents should assume that their teenage children will give personal information out, because they will.’”

She added: ‘“From a neurobiological standpoint we can now prove that a teenager’s frontal lobe is not developed yet. The frontal lobe is responsible for logic and reasoning, cause and effect. Their logic and reasoning is under construction. They’re operating on emotion. That’s why parents are always saying, ‘What were you thinking?’ They’re not thinking.’”

Dudeck said the company takes the safety of its customers seriously. The free website has a couple safeguards to discourage teenagers from becoming the targets adults who would do them harm, but the Myspace spokeswoman acknowledge they’re far from failsafe.

‘“The terms of use prohibit any users from posting nudity, hate speech or obscene content,’” she said. ‘“In terms of the younger users, we require every new user to enter their age and date of birth. We clearly indicate in our terms of use that children under the age of 14 are not allowed to use the website.’”

Still, the site relies on its users to honestly represent themselves. In one personal site a woman who appears to be in the prime of early adulthood is listed as 101 years old, indicating that as long as age and date of birth correlate there is little likelihood of a new user’s application being rejected based on false self-reporting.

Dudeck said 90 of MySpace’s 300 employees are involved reviewing the images and photos that are posted on the site, with the aid of a software sleuthing program.

‘“Automated search engines and algorithms can look for inconsistencies in profile to make sure that users are over the age of fourteen,’” she said.

Then too, what constitutes obscene content is by definition a vast gray area. Parents have complained that though clothed some of the teenage girls are shown in sexually suggestive poses. Included in the Myspace.com photo portfolio of one 16-year-old girl who lives in Greensboro is a shot showing the full length of her bare legs with her crotch obscured by an electric guitar.

‘“I can’t really get into the specifics of what it means to be obscene,’” Dudeck said. ‘“If a user gets in touch with us and complains about content we take a very close look at it, review it and take action as needed, whether that means deleting a user from the system, deleting content, or alerting law enforcement in some cases.’”

Users will often navigate the site by searching for a particular user, and then click on the profiles of that person’s collection of friends. A blinking icon indicates whether the person is online or not. From there, the possibilities of online interaction are virtually endless. A user without any personal point of reference can browse the site by filling out a search request specifying preferred gender, age range and geographical location.

Most of the youngest users are winnowed out because the search is designed to select only users who report their ages as 18 years or older. A search for female MySpace members between the ages of 18 and 25 located within a five-mile radius of zip code 27407, where YES! Weekly’s office is located, harvested a total of 2,890 profiles.

While most of the content appears to be fairly innocent, a review of the search results indicated that the company’s human and software monitoring efforts do not always filter out obscene content or keep adults from viewing the profiles of children.

The more provocative content of the profiles, which can be accessed by clicking on the member’s image, can range from playful to salacious to crude, depending on one’s personal standards. Among the first 40 member profiles were a handful showing young women with bared midriffs. The next batch included a link to a personal site featuring pictures of a 19-year-old UNCG student hoisting a beer can and tipping up a bottle of Tequila, along with one showing a 17-year-old Greensboro girl posed in a bikini top and lei. Yes, that’s correct: 17, even though the youngest age allowed in the search terms is 18.

The fourth batch contained a link to a personal site owned by a 20-year-old UNCG student who was online at the moment, and could have been contacted by one click of the mouse. Prominent among the student’s blog posts was a list of ‘“rules’” for engaging in casual sex that suggested desensitized callousness and even prostitution. One rule stated: ‘“We are not friends, just sex buddies.’” Another revealed: ‘“All gifts accepted ‘—’ money is always good.’” Included in a scroll of comments submitted by friends in the MySpace were a picture of a woman’s erect nipples showing through a T-shirt and a mock certificate praising the member’s sexual assets.

Those and other items turned up in the first five batches of 40 member profiles, leaving unexamined 2,690 additional profiles of MySpace members located within five miles.

Parents like Sparks and Picarello said that while they appreciated that MySpace could in theory be used for positive peer interaction, the safeguards are too lax for them to even consider allowing their children to use the site. Both agreed that parents have to decide for themselves whether their children should use the site, and what level of supervision is appropriate. Sparks said blocking the site is easily accomplished, along with reviewing the history of one’s web browser or logging into MySpace as a parent to make sure a child’s site isn’t posted.

‘“Is my kid on Myspace? Absolutely not,’” Picarello said. ‘“She’s twelve, and we will not have the discussion that ‘everybody else does it.’ Not negotiable.’”

Picarello said the Council of PTAs is trying to get NC Attorney General Roy Cooper to give a presentation to parents sometime in the 2006-2007 school year on the dangers of sexual predators locating teenage victims on the internet.

‘“This is all new,’” she said. ‘“It’s a new thing that parents have to deal with. We can’t just put our heads in the sand. You don’t want your kids to be the first ones to fall victim to it.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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