It's the coolest hangout space for teens-but parents might be surprised at what their kids do there. Here's how to help keep them safe online
Last year, as Margaret Sullivan was reviewing the websites her 13-year-old daughter had visited on the family computer, up popped something called myspace.com. Curious, she clicked on it. "Oh, my God," she thought, as she brought up a page with her daughter's full name, photograph, and school name and location in Wood-Ridge, N.J., along with personal details like her favorite bands and TV shows. "I was so upset," says Sullivan. "All someone had to do to find her was call up the school." At first, her daughter, Shannon, denied knowing anything about the site. "I knew she wasn't going to like what was up there," she says. But Shannon was distressed, too. She couldn't believe her mom was nosing around what she thought was a private place online. "I didn't know everyone could see my page," says Shannon. "I just thought it was a way to talk with my friends."
In the year and a half since Margaret and Shannon had their MySpace confrontation, the social-networking site has exploded in popularity and become the focus of intense parental concern. There are other sites where teens can post profiles and blogs, leave messages for one another, and connect with new people through friends or on their own-sites like Facebook, Xanga, Sconex, Bebo, and Tagged. But MySpace has captured parents' imaginations like no other, and in the worst possible way. To many parents, who may have gotten an eyeful of its sometimes-titillating profiles and photos, MySpace seems like Lake Wobegon gone horribly wrong: a place where all the women are fast, the men are hard-drinking, and the children take an above-average interest in imitating them. How can they allow their kids to roam freely in such an environment? Anyone could be lurking there.
They're right, and to judge from the numbers, it seems that practically everyone is. To join the club, you answer a few questions, upload a photo or two, and voilÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¡, you've got a MySpace profile. Although the site started out as a place for musicians and artists to connect with one another, it has gradually morphed into an online hot spot, and its popularity now easily dwarfs that of others of its kind. The site currently has more than 100 million profiles, with 230,000 new members signing up every day. In August, MySpace accounted for 81 percent of visitors to leading social-networking sites, according to Hitwise, a market-research company. Facebook, a site that's popular with college students, came in a distant second, receiving just 7.3 percent of social-networking traffic. Demonstrating how important these sites are to users, Facebook received scores of angry E-mails last week when it changed some of its features.
Get involved. Among the many millions of people visiting these sites, some, indeed, are sexual predators, and there have been some highly publicized accounts of teenagers who've been lured into offline meetings at which they've been assaulted. Parents, understandably, are traumatized by such stories. By focusing so intently on protecting their kids from stalkers, however, parents have overlooked other less sensational but important aspects of their kids' online experiences. How teens interact with their peers in cyberspace, for example, and how they present themselves through images and words may not be life-or-death decisions, but they can have a serious impact on their lives offline. As the new school year begins, parents have an opportunity to take an interest and get involved in their kids' online experiences, if they haven't done so already.