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Kids Vs. Creeps: Concerns Mount Over Online Child Predators

Teens hang out on social Web sites--but so do sexual predators. They need our help staying safe.

J. Nicholas Hoover

April 28, 2006

3 Min Read

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But as Rich's profile indicates, there's more to do. Anyone can join, the site's default privacy controls are set so anyone can send messages to users, and it's easy to fool the system. One teen interviewed by InformationWeek said his 12-year-old brother established a profile on MySpace by lying about his age.

Friendster soon will have five employees working in member services, who will seek and remove questionable content and monitor the network. Yet such a small group can't scrutinize every photograph. To maintain a level of safety, Friendster has made it so users must know first and last names to befriend others and can dictate who can see their pages and message them.

Facebook users must have valid college or high school E-mail addresses, though recently selected companies have been allowed to join. Some high schools have their own domain names, and there's a protracted process by which students at schools without their own Web sites can join, and alumni aren't allowed. When teens post information, it's only public to verified friends, not the entire Web. Children aren't at high risk of receiving messages from strangers, because it's difficult to contact a user if you don't know their name.

Because of these controls, Facebook has seen few child predators, chief privacy officer Chris Kelly says. "This has been a deliberate design choice for us," Kelly says. "We're trying to re-create the way people share information in the real world. The idea to share all that information over the open Internet struck us as sort of a silly vision."

Some sites go a step further. Jeanette Symons founded Imbee.com, a place for 8- to 14-year-olds to socialize. It includes a range of parental controls, and published material is eventually deleted so that kids don't have to worry about content coming back to haunt them--for example, when a future employer runs a background check five years down the road. Parents are able to approve or deny online buddies and can control the scope of interaction between kids through direct communications with site administrators and without needing their kids' passwords or log-in names. Similar sites are in the works, including YFly, co-founded by teen heartthrob Nick Lachey. Still, even Symons admits there are ways to fool Imbee's system.

Parents can find the sites a rude awakening. "For 10 years, people have been saying, 'It's not my kid,'" Aftab says. But now, on sites like MySpace and Xanga, parents are seeing what kids have been saying all along in instant messages and E-mails, "and they're freaked."

Investigator Newcomb recently spoke to an auditorium of elementary schoolers in western New York. He asked kids in the audience how many of them had more than 200 friends on their online buddy list--a bunch of hands shot up. Out of those, he asked how many have only friends on that list they can put a face to, and half of the hands remained raised. Finally, he asked if any of the kids had ever gone and met someone they'd got to know online, and a few hands were raised. "That's just totally frightening to me," Newcomb says. "The superintendent looked like his eyes were going to pop out of his head."

It may take a village to raise a child. But in a world of online social networking, decentralized networks and servers, and increasingly tech-savvy child predators, it's going to take a united effort among government, industry, and families to keep them safe.

Continue to the sidebars:
Child Porn On Your Work PCs? It Can Happen
and You Gotta Talk To Kids

About the Author(s)

J. Nicholas Hoover

Senior Editor, InformationWeek Government

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