MySpace's Missed Opportunity

By focusing solely on social networking sites, we miss the real picture of who is at risk and how victimization happens.
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I've been noodling over yesterday's MySpace announcement since, well, yesterday. While I applaud any effort to make the site safer for teens, there is an aspect of all this that feels forced. Whenever industry reacts to the threat of legislation or regulation, vs. being proactive early on, the measures taken feel like they are meant to appease whoever was doing the threatening. Rebecca Scritchfield, a grad student at John Hopkins, made this point in an email to me about this happening in the context of regulating advertising of junk food to kids.

When the FCC explored regulation, the ad industry created the self-regulatory body "children's food and beverage advertising initiative". This include a dozen or so food and beverage companies that represent a bulk of the ad dollars. The problem is that there is no standard criteria so companies set their own guidelines that coincide with their products so little change is needed. For example, Kellogg set a limit of 15 grams of sugar to advertise to kids. Well, all their products (except pop tarts) already comply and they are creating a whole grain pop tart with (guess what) 15 grams of sugar per poptart, which they will count as one serving even though they come in packs of two and kids will likely eat two. It's very misleading.

In my opinion, MySpace could have been way more proactive about educating parents and teens (not just putting safety info in a footer link) much earlier on, forming a coalition with different constituencies, and even doing its own large-scale Be Safe On MySpace Tour. Instead, they ended up having to react to politicians and law enforcement threatening regulation and legislation generating a response that feels like it was meant to appease these constituents vs. a more thoughtful, holistic (i.e. non-fear based) approach to the issues raised by widespread youth participation on social networking sites that are open to anyone over the age of 13 or 14.

Here are what I see as some of the problems with the announcement:

By focusing solely on social networking sites, we miss the real picture of who is at risk and how victimization happens.

The spirit and content of yesterday's announcement continues to perpetuate the culture of fear around children and the internet, making every child a potential victim and every adult a potential perpetrator. There is a growing body of research about who engages with sexual predators online -- and it's not your average teen. Most teens who receive unwanted attention ignore it and the very small percentage who don't tend to be engaged in risky behavior offline as well. There is new research (which will be published on Monday) that also asserts that it's over IM and in chat based environments where more of these solicitations are happening vs. on social networking sites.

The technical solutions are more symbolic than anything else.

Creating an email registry blocking children from MySpace only gives misinformed parents a false sense of security since creating a new email address is pretty much "internet 101." MySpace's Zephyr software only notifies parents that a teen has logged in, and I wouldn't be surprised if teens haven't figured out how to disable it already. I'm doubtful that scanning for underage users and kicking them off, stops them from coming back and learning to lie even better. And why shouldn't they? Tom lied about his age. Some parents encourage it as a way to avoid creepy contact. It seems like it's partly the culture of the internet itself that encourages creating a fake persona or even multiple identities. Many teens and adults reinvent themselves on MySpace as a way to experiment with identity or promote different aspects of themselves. I'm not sure this is always a bad thing.

They've successfully fended off legislation...for now.

Maybe this announcement was enough to appease lawmakers...but maybe not. "Connecticut lawmakers this year introduced legislation supported by state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal that would require parental consent for teens using social networking sites." And what about the AGs who refused to sign on to the announcement, like Texas?

They've created unrealistic practices for smaller sites.

I'm utterly amazed that MySpace has an army of contractors scanning millions of images daily for porn. But if smaller social networking sites have to live up to this standard, well, I'm not sure they can. I'm not saying sites shouldn't do as much as they can, but if this becomes the industry standard, it will hurt smaller players.

Protecting teens from all adult stranger contact also means denying them some positive adult contact.

Finally, by putting all adult strangers in the bucket of potential predator, we make it harder for well-meaning adults, outreach workers, librarians, etc. to be able to reach teens on the site as well.

Instead of Band-Aid solutions, we need a paradigm shift -- away from fear and towards teaching safe and appropriate internet use, cyber ethics, internet citizenship, whatever you want to call it, as well as comprehensive parent/teacher/school administrator education on what sites teens love (their history, positives and negatives), why teens love them, and most importantly, how they work, privacy settings, loopholes, etc. I guarantee you that if we can make this happen, parents will be armed with the knowledge they need not only to keep kids safe, but to help them to appropriately manage their online identity(ies).

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