Reporter’s Notebook It’s not hard to picture a typical teenager in the Internet era: home from school, heading straight for the bedroom, door slammed tight and off to another world, online.
Once there, she listens to music, chats in real time, explores like interests with strangers, joins clubs, divulges every last detail about her life, reads others’ details and plasters photos and words that represent who she is.
But would she let her mother see it? It’s a question best posed to the millions of people who don’t hold back on their profiles when it comes to popular social networking sites.
Since online networking started taking off a few years ago, the phenomenon has rewritten the “don’t talk to strangers” rule for kids. Now, rather than staying away from the unknown, people are apt to push the envelope, posting as much as they can on their profiles so they can attract as many “friends” as possible.
The growth of social networking has fueled interest in sites such as Friendster, Facebook, and Xanga. But none is as popular as MySpace.com right now.
With an estimated 48 million users and growing each day, MySpace is a tool for the business-minded looking to network, musicians looking for listeners and writers looking for readers. And it’s a hands-down draw for attention-hungry youth. Marketers are drooling.
But there’s a downside. According to MySpace’s terms and conditions, the age requirement for participation is 14, but kids much younger have profiles. The page does claim it can delete any profile without warning and will do so if users misrepresent their ages. And though the terms page cautions users against advertising their secrets, and even prohibits them from posting phone numbers, addresses and last names, users do it anyway. MySpace did not return a request for comment.
Not everyone who reads the site has the best intentions.
Just this week, according to AP reports out of Hartford, Conn., police are investigating whether seven teen-aged girls were sexually assaulted by men they met on MySpace.
“An adult can pretend to be almost anyone and anywhere while he or she is using the Internet,” said Alex Davila, supervisor of the Exploited Child Unit of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). “He or she can communicate with children that they otherwise could not. They have the capability to communicate with children anywhere in the world, even while they are believed to be safe at home with their parents.”
The Draw of The Numbers
MySpace enjoyed a 752 percent year-over-year growth as of November, according to a Nielsen//NetRatings report. With that kind of growth, it’s small wonder why Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp ., which bought MySpace owner Intermix Media last summer, jumped at the chance to increase ad revenue. Similarly, why wouldn’t a company jump at the chance to put its logos in the view of all these members?
Kelly Kennedy, marketing communication specialist at MindComet, told internetnews.com that there are two types of advertising geared toward social networking sites.
“One is through the branded profile. If you’re an artist or book publisher, you can go in and create your own profile, talk about your songs, and your fans will come and find you. There are more than 660,000 musicians on MySpace and they’re benefiting tremendously. You’re getting video and music for free that you can put on your own site. And so they’re building their brands.”
Another type of advertising, according to Kennedy, is direct ad sales. “Consumers are more likely to respond to a peer group than a banner ad. Advertisers can answer questions and do promotions. But they may need to realize they may not get the large audience they’re looking for.”
Should these companies be concerned about predators on these sites? Is it even their business? The companies advertise on the sites for a good reason, Kennedy said, and they want the people to spend more time online.
But that’s the companies. News Corp. is in a good spot to increase its daily revenue if it can keep the number of its profiles growing.
“Talk about a cheap way to make money,” said Larry Magid, founder of blogsafety.com. “You go to MySpace.com, and they’ve got 43 million content providers. It’s the ultimate reality TV show. And you have to do no work.”
Magid noticed the proliferation of predators online and began a campaign of educating the world about being safer on the Internet.
“We were making progress largely because parents and kids became more aware of the dangers,” Magid told internetnews.com.
His blogsafety.com and safekids.com Web sites provide parents and kids with information on staying safe online.
But he said the sheer number of blogs has provided a false sense of security and, as a result, has led to a complacency among those who participate in the social networking scene.
“In recent years, kids have been thinking that the rules don’t apply to things like blogs,” he said. “One child I interviewed somehow felt that because millions of people are doing it, the odds are low that someone will find them. When enough people do it, it becomes the norm. And it seems safe.”
MySpace and other like sites have extended the blog space by allowing instant interaction and providing users with the option of dressing up their profiles with little effort. The number of users multiplies, they pile on friends, join clubs and happen upon features that they think will enhance their profiles. At some point, there is no going back.
“People can enjoy MySpace without taking chances,” Magid said. “All of that info in the hands of a pedophile is like data in the hands of the National Security Agency. Kids want to be able to share. But in order to impress one or two friends, they don’t need to put their information out to the world.”
As it is, pedophiles can go online and perform initial searches for kids and groom them, which, Magid said, is an act predators undertake in order to get to know their victims.
“A predator can break down the resistance of a victim over time to gain their confidence,” he said. The grooming process continues as the predator commiserates with particular issues a victim may be having, all the while posing as something he or she is not.
Here to Stay Safely?
Regardless of the space people play in on the Internet, risk is a foregone conclusion. Magid and Kennedy, and even the millions of social-networking participants, say the phenomenon is here to stay and its marketing potential will only increase.
And they agree that people have to use it smarter. Common sense has a role to play with the unintelligent users who think it’s “cool” to post scantily clad photos of themselves accompanied by identifying information. Parents have a role, too.
“They can attempt to search for their child’s profile. Don’t only search for them by name. Search by school,” Magid said. “Don’t overreact. Don’t yank the modem out of the wall. Focus on the fact that if they’re not careful, they’re a sitting duck. Don’t get into value judgments about their taste and their issues. Knives in the hands of a chef can do productive things. But knives in the hands of a child who isn’t trained to use it can be dangerous.”
Catherine Pickavet is chief copy editor of internetnews.com and used to have a MySpace profile.