who traverse the Internet in search
of vulnerable children.
In a couple weeks I will be celebrating
a big birthday; not mine, but my daughters. She will be turning 13. She is excited about becoming a teenager. I am excited for her as well, but I am also ner-vous for her.
My daughter is bright, vivacious. She sees the whole world at her feet and speaks daily of the numerous opportunities ahead of her. I am excited about that part. What I am nervous about is the possibility she might put herself out there for the whole world to see as an opportunity for abuse.
Remember the days of going out after dinner and playing with the neighborhood kids? If you were lucky you might scrounge up enough kids for a game of kick-the-can or hide-and-seek. Everyone knew everyone. Strangers were easy to spot. But those were the good old days.
Guess what? The neighborhood just got bigger for our kids.
Try 100 million people on the block and not all of them are kids. Kid games are distant memories. They have been replaced by Instant Messaging, Spooning (a form
of cuddling), Forking (intercourse), Sporking (when three people cuddle together), Dancing Around In Your Underpants,
3-Some Hook Up, Girls Kissing Girls, Boys Kissing Boys, Panty Jacking (where teen boys and girls switch underpants), Blogging (online journaling), and even Cyberbullying (defaming another person through blogging or text messaging), and these are just
some of the many activities in the modern cyber-neighborhood.
All of the above sound like a bunch of porn sites. Guess again. They are all popular teen sites on the Internet where kids go to discuss and participate in these activities in addition to posting provocative pictures. Guess who else is in the neighborhood? Sexual predators.
It is called social-networking and it is the hottest craze among teenagers, 20-somethings and those in their 30s trying to hang onto their 20s. The most popular social networking neighborhood on the Internet is MySpace.com; just last week two million Internet users signed up for an account that is free and only takes a few minutes (or seconds if you are a teenager) to register for.
MySpace is nearing 60 million members and has become the fastest-growing business on the Internet since it was started two years ago. At first it was a place where bands posted info and music clips for fans and friends to come and check out. It has become so popular that media mogul Rupert Murdoch (FOX TV) bought MySpace last July for $580 million.
So as my daughter enters her teen years not only do I have to worry about her confronting the temptations my generation faced: having sex, sexually-transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, smoking, drinking alcohol and drug use, but also the trappings of the Internet.
Like with other temptations, social-networking starts with a teens peers. One kid comes to school talking about it and the next day 50 kids have MySpace accounts.
Sites like MySpace give teens a chance to network with friends and meet new ones from all over the world. As with many things on the Internet, social-networking is a great tool when used for its intended purpose.
With millions of people online, a kid who is not connecting at school is surely to find friends on the Internet.
But just who are these friends? Thats where the trouble starts.
When teens create MySpace sites they load up photos (even videos) and post their personal information. They often express their thoughts and feelings with blog entries that in my day would have been reserved for ones private journal. In some cases they put their phone numbers, addresses, their school name and even their class schedules and social events they will be attending online. Making them easy prey for thousands of sexual predators posing as teenagers who also have MySpace sites.
We have safeguards in society that help keep teenagers from the use of alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography. Yet none of these safeguards exist on the Internet. Access to adult information on the Internet is as simple as typing in a false birth date. Imagine if all your son or daughter had to do at the store was say he or she were 21 to purchase alcohol, or to spout off a fake birthdate to enter an adult movie.
While MySpace and other sites post detailed warnings (MySpace even has a section for parents to learn about protecting their children), many kids simply lie to gain access.
MySpace requires that you be 14 to sign up and the site tells those who are younger that this is not a place for them. But kids are crafty so they type in that they are 14, when they might actually be 11. And when they learn that 14- and 15-year-olds have limited access they suddenly become 16.
That is exactly what several of the kids at my daughters school have done. Even with 60 million people at MySpace and despite the fact that everyone creates a nickname it took me only five minutes to find some of her classmates. Once you find one you can find them all because at social-networking sites you link all your friends together. Two dozen of her friends ages 12 and 13 all claimed to be at least 16 in order to create their sites.
My daughter is aware of what her friends are doing but she hasnt asked yet to create a MySpace site. She already knows the answer. It would be the same one I gave her two years ago when she asked for an e-mail account to IM (instant messaging) with her friends. NO WAY. She knows also not to sneak an account because she would get caught, as her mother is an IT director and very Internet and computer savvy.
I know it is embarrassing for her and maybe her cool status at school has diminished, but you cant be cool if youre dead. Okay so maybe I am being a little overprotective and overreacting. Or am I? I wonder if the parents whose children have been sexually molested and in some cases even murdered because predators tracked their sons and daughters down through social-networking sites wish they would have been more overprotected.
While most of the pictures and comments posted by my daughters classmates are silly and goofy, some are not. Some of the girls posted pictures of themselves trying to look sexy. One boy wrote about his favorite vodka. I am not blind to the ways of pre-teens and I know hormones are running wild at their age but I am not sure 12-year-olds should be posting pictures of themselves on the Internet making out. Each of these sites provided enough information for a sexual predator to track down anyone of these boys or girls.
I decided to go up a few grade levels and see what high school aged kids in the area were putting on their sites. Again, while most teens were posting appropriate photos, several were not. One area teen had posted several photographs of herself and her friends drinking and topless with boys covering the girls breasts so the pictures would be legal for the website. I recognized a star athlete from one of the areas sports teams in a photograph. I called his coach who immediately brought the team in and warned them.
The girl has since taken the photos down. The boys on the sports team told their coaches that the girls taking the pictures said they would never show them to anyone. But one of the girls had written in her blog about having sex with several of the boys in the same night and had posted the pictures as sort of notches on her belt.
GROUP SEX FANTASIES
Several teenage girls have posted sexually provocative photographs of themselves. Often just in their bras and panties and in some cases in just a thong with their hands covering their breasts. Some teen boys have posted blogs about masturbating and fantasies about group sex. Some girls, ages 14 and 15, have even claimed to be 21, essentially misleading potential online friends or guys that under normal circumstances would not try and contact a minor.
All of this information provides a free psychological profile for sexual predators. Without realizing it, teenagers have done half the work for guys looking for easy prey. According to widespread news reports, online sexual predators spend hours surfing the web looking for victims.
The news program Dateline has aired three shows, with the assistance of Perverted Justice, a group working with law enforcement agencies to catch online sexual predators. The group used MySpace and other sites to lure predators in, resulting in the arrest of 50 men in a three-day period on a recent show. The results were startling. School teachers, spiritual leaders, the guy next door-- many were parents themselves, surfing the Internet looking to have sex with 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls.
In a sting operation run in Bloomfield Hills a Northern Michigan man drove all the way downstate because he thought he was meeting up with a 13-year-old. So these online predators are in our backyard.
Recently on Jon Stewarts The Daily Show, a reporter did a segment about
MySpace. At the end of the story the reporter said, the downside to it is all the sexual predators, but the upside is all the sexual prey.
Exactly the reason why my daughter at 13 wont have a MySpace site at least for now. But when she is old enough and responsible enough my position might change. We cant keep our kids off the Internet, they need it for school research and it has become an important resource for our world. Instead we have to set boundaries and spend time with them and show them the risks. If we dont they will find it on their own.
One parent told me that when their son was doing research for a report he Googled the topic and several porn sites came up. He was scared because every time he tried to get out of a site three more pornographic sites popped up. He is a 5th grader and fortunately his father was in the living room and was able to offer help and guidance.
So if your son or daughter is on the Internet, regardless of their age, they are going to come in contact with pornography.
Some schools issue warnings and block students access to sites on school computers. Other schools are having problems with students taking pictures of other kids in the locker room and posting inappropriate photos online, or creating sites which defame other kid. This can involve writing all sorts of inappropriate things that will be attributed to an unsuspecting teen who is unaware that he even has a MySpace site.
But other kids are willingly posting sexually provocative photos of themselves on the Internet. One Northern Michigan teenager posted a racy photo of herself and professed to becoming Americas Next Porn Star. Her father, a prominent public official was shocked when I called him.
Then there was a photo of a cheerleader in the region who pulled her jean pockets inside out and then put an arrow pointing to her crotch, writing kiss me between the bunny ears.
Some teenagers are even creating porn sites and PayPal accounts so they can make money. They promote their porn sites on MySpace and direct visitors to their site where a credit card is required. Even teenagers from Northern Michigan are participating in these sites. One West Coast teen created a group on the MySpace asking girls to post pictures of their butts (while in panties or a thong). Now 18, she has created a sexiest butt website and is making $250,000 a year while attending film school.
TALKING TO TEENS
So as my daughter blows out 13 candles on her cake I am going to be excited for her. But I am going to be scared for her as well. She knows that. We talk about it sometimes when I drive her to school.
The other day we talked about how decisions she makes now will impact her for the rest of her life. As I told her I loved her, she responds I know Dad, you have told me a hundred of times that my decisions will have and impact on my future, but I promise I wont do anything wrong if I can have an internet account.
Then we heard a news report about a 13-year-old girl strangled to death out east after a sexual predator lured her in through her MySpace site. My daughter looked at me, smiled and said Dad I love you too. I guess I will pass on that MySpace site.
In part II next week Rick Coates will look at additional teen Internet trappings including pornography, gambling and even sites that help kids commit suicide. He will discuss what local law enforcement agencies; school administrators and counselors recommend for parents as ways to protect their children while they use the Internet.