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
"Non-weird people." MySpace instituted new privacy measures in June to enhance the safety and security of the site. Now, a new feature lets users of any age choose to make their profiles private, so that only friends within their network have access to their personal dossier. In addition, no one over the age of 18 can access a 14- or 15-year-old's profile without knowing the user's full name or E-mail address. Since age verification is impossible, however, these age-based rules are easy to skirt, and many people routinely lie about their age. In fact, MySpace deletes 25,000 profiles weekly of users who don't meet the site's 14-year-old minimum age requirement, says Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for the site. The penalty for violators is severe. "We delete them," he says. The profiles aren't the only things that go: Anything posted on other pages disappears as well. Nigam acknowledges the age-based system isn't perfect. "We have considered other ways to set the system up so it is not just about age."
Contrary to parents' perception that their children are easy prey for unscrupulous adults, many kids are just as wary of strangers as their parents or just plain uninterested in meeting them. Zeitlin says he and most of his friends claim to be 14 online. "I do it so people who aren't my friends can't see my profile,"he says. "I wouldn't really trust someone online to introduce me to interesting or non-weird people."
According to a new study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 7 young people ages 10 to 17 acknowledged receiving an online sexual solicitation in 2005. Five years ago, when the survey was first done, the number was higher: 1 in 5. (Online solicitation is defined as a request to engage in sexual activities or talk or give personal sexual information, from any Internet-based communication.) About 4 percent received "aggressive" solicitations, in which the person wanted to make contact offline, a number that didn't decline from the previous survey.
Dangerous ground. Parents need to be on the lookout, experts say, for unfamiliar friends who contact their children online out of the blue, as well as risky behavior on the part of kids themselves that makes them targets for predators. Too often teens post erotic photos in which they pose suggestively and expose plenty of skin, using screen names like "nasty" or "sexygirl." In their personal description, they may say they're wild or curious about having sex with a stranger. To kids, this may seem like harmless posturing. Parents can help them understand when they're on dangerous ground. "Parents need to talk about certain lines you don't cross," says Magid. "There's a difference between language that's edgy and obscene or profane, and a difference between being sexy and being sexual or slutty."
Some experts worry that while parents focus on sexual predators, however, they miss other ways in which the Internet may be negatively affecting their kids' sexual development. As parents have noticed to their dismay, many kids post very sexualized images of themselves in swimsuits or their underwear. MySpace says it has several staffers who eyeball each of the 3 million images that are posted every day, searching for-and removing-nudity, hate speech or symbols, and offensive content. But photos that are merely provocative aren't forbidden. And with virtually no supervision or monitoring of conversations online, casual banter and egging each other on about sex through online posts and instant messages ("I heard Carmen and Dave hooked up at a party." Response: "No, but he wants to!!!") set the stage for sexual experimentation once kids meet face to face. "Developmentally, the envelope has always been pushed during adolescence," says Sharon Maxwell, a clinical psychologist in Canton, Mass., who specializes in teen sexuality, "but never without any rules. And now it all happens more quickly." This speeding up of sexual development is most pronounced among middle schoolers, Maxwell says.