June 29, 2006 – When it comes to making rules about their Internet usage, young people say lawmakers â€“ like parents â€“ just donâ€™t understand.
Thatâ€™s the message some teens and youth advocates are trying to get across to elected officials. They are lobbying against the proposed Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, which would prevent teens from accessing social-networking websites like MySpace and Friendster at schools and libraries.
The legislation was introduced in the House by Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick (Râ€“Pennsylvania) in early May and is now in the Energy and Commerce committee, with a hearing expected in July. The bill would withhold federal funding from schools and libraries unless they institute measures to prevent minors from accessing social-networking sites â€“ where they can post information about themselves â€“ as well as other Internet spaces where they could be exposed to sexual advances or "obscene" material.
A handful of highly publicized cases have drummed up fear about sexual predators lurking online, including that of the 14-year-old Texas girl who alleges she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she met on MySpace. The girl and her mother are suing MySpace for $30 million.
Proponents of social-networking sites point out that with only a handful of such crimes reported nationwide, and more than 80 million registered MySpace users, these cyber hangouts are safer than most teensâ€™ local coffee shops, parks or even homes.
Proponents point out that with only a handful of predatation crimes reported nationwide, these cyber hangouts are safer than most teensâ€™ local coffee shops, parks or even homes.
"Weâ€™re trying to get the public to understand that these websites are not traps for pedophiles; theyâ€™re really positive sites that a few isolated criminals are misusing," said Alex Koroknay-Palicz, 24, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, an organization running a campaign encouraging young people to write to newspapers and legislators opposing the House bill.
"There's a huge amount of hype surrounding the protection of children on the Internet; I've realized that this hype is simply blown way out of proportion," said Geoffrey Bell, a 16-year-old student in Goleta, California who said MySpace gives him "a self-esteem boost" and provides a place to express his "tastes and quirks."
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children hosts websites educating youth and parents on the risks of online predators and has been running a national advertising campaign announcing that one in five children are sexually solicited on-line. This statistic is based on the results of a survey of 1,501 youth age 10 to 17 published by the Department of Justice (DoJ) in 2000.
The "one in five" ads are misleading, however; the study actually found one in five youth received a "sexual solicitation or approach" online, which could include any kind of unwanted request "to engage in sexual activities or sexual talk or to give personal sexual information online," whether from a peer or an adult. Only one in 33 respondents reported an "aggressive" proposition â€“ from either a teen or an adult â€“ such as a phone call or invitation to meet somewhere in person.
The sites are so popular among teens that asking for the address of someoneâ€™s MySpace profile is little different than asking for a phone number or e-mail address.
The majority of respondents said they were not disturbed by online sexual propositions or comments, and the researchers said that no sexual contact between teens and adults was reported by the respondents.
MySpace, founded by two brothers in 2004 and recently purchased by Rupert Murdochâ€™s conglomerate News Corporation, allows users to create free web-based "profiles," where they can post personal messages, photos and other text; stream music and video clips; and link to other profiles or websites. Users can send messages to and chat with other members of the MySpace network, browse othersâ€™ profiles and designate other users as their "friends," creating a massive inter-connected social matrix.
Similar sites include Facebook and Friendster. The sites are so popular among teens that asking for the address of someoneâ€™s MySpace profile is little different than asking for a phone number or e-mail address.
"Trying to limit access to such websites is not only pointless but unfair to youth," said Kris Sosa, a member of the National Youth Rights Association.
Sosa, a 17-year-old graphic designer and high school student in Holland, Michigan, has a MySpace page with photos and messages from his friends and a lengthy list of his favorite bands. He thinks the legislation would be both ineffective and unethical.
"Like many other things â€“ underage drinking for example â€“ youth are going to find a way around blocks and filters," he said. "Itâ€™s just a matter of time before they get what they want."
â€œThis is... the real reason these networks are being targeted: because they are increasingly effective at coordinating successful grassroots campaigns.â€
"My other issue with the bill," Sosa continued, "is it basically plays the role of â€˜national parent.â€™ I think that by trying to limit access to such websites, the government is not only spending money on something that is easy to overcome; they are overstepping their boundaries."
Yonaton Yares, an 18-year-old New Jersey resident who has Facebook and MySpace accounts, agreed that the bill would be "a waste of time."
"The schools can already restrict web pages if they want to," Yares noted. "It shouldnâ€™t be a national issue." Yares shares photos with friends over MySpace and uses Facebook to keep in touch with high school friends and do political organizing.
In fact, young people have used these sites for organizing protests and lobbying campaigns, from the high school walkouts for immigrant rights in California this spring, to the online campaign to protect social-networking access itself.
Scott Hammond, a 26-year-old chemistry doctoral student at the University of Washington, said he thinks the success of political organizing on the sites is one of the reasons the government is cracking down.
"Network sites are prime areas for critical democratic discussion of the faults of current and future administrations," said Hammond, who participates in online activism through MySpace and also sites including MoveOn.org, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the ACLU.
"This is, of course, the real reason these networks are being targeted," Hammond speculated, "because they are increasingly effective at coordinating successful grassroots campaigns. Those in power clearly do not like this trend, and want to use whatever means available to attempt to suppress this form of next-generation democratic process."
David Smith, 26, executive director of the group Mobilizing Americaâ€™s Youth, which aims to engage young people in public policy, said that with the aid of his groupâ€™s website, more than 5,100 messages have been sent to Congress, and several hundred letters have been written to newspapers, all in opposition to the Deleting Online Predators Act.
"We want public debate so parents and people who donâ€™t know what MySpace is will understand the issue," Smith said. "Congress notices a problem and wants to step in. But [the risk of online predators] is something that can be policed within the community and by the owners of these sites."
Smith also noted that the use of networking sites specifically, and experience with Internet technology in general, can be beneficial to youth in their academic and career development.
"Facebook is used in a lot of educational ways," he said. "You can share insight about lectures, let people know what the homework was. And you can connect with employers through these sites, or get assistance in developing your rÃ©sumÃ©. There are great educational, civic, social and professional reasons to use these websites."
Some critics of the proposed legislation pointed out that, since it only affects computers in public places, young people who lack Internet access at home will be disproportionately affected.
In response to security concerns and criticism, MySpace recently instituted measures meant to prevent older users from trawling the Net for teen hook-ups. Members must be 14 years old to join; users over 18 can only chat with someone under 16 if they already know the personâ€™s real name or e-mail address. Users can also block people they donâ€™t know from contacting them. However, there remains no convenient, foolproof method of authenticating usersâ€™ real ages.
But another DoJ-funded study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2004, suggests that online sexual predators rarely lie about their ages. The researchers surveyed law enforcement agencies for the characteristics of perpetrators and victims of internet-initiated sex offenses and found that "although most of the offenders were much older than their victimsâ€¦ only 5 percent of offenders represented themselves online as peers of victims by claiming they were age 17 or younger."
The researchers also reported that only 21 percent of offenders "hid or misrepresented their motives" to their eventual victims and that most of that deceit involved "insincere promises of love and romance," rather than dishonesty about sexual intentions.
Stephany Porter, a 25-year-old mother and MySpace user in Washington, thinks online predators are a valid concern, but says it is the role of parents, not the government, to teach children to be safe online.
"It is my job to teach my children responsibility and online safety, and it is my job to monitor their online activities," Porter said. "I do not think that social networking sites should be banned at schools or libraries."
Along with the safety concerns, some criticize the sites for allowing kids to post photos or blog entries which could get them into trouble â€“ like images or descriptions of wild parties and sexual escapades.
A school board in Chicagoâ€™s northern suburbs recently instituted a policy saying students could be barred from sports or other extra-curricular clubs for evidence of illegal or "inappropriate" activity shown on websites. Students may also be disciplined for posting threats or slander about teachers, students or others.
Prentiss Lea, associate superintendent of Community High School District 128, which covers 3,200 students in two facilities in Chicago, said the policy just expands upon the districtâ€™s existing practice of investigating off-campus drinking, drug use or other behavior by students. He said school officials will not monitor social-networking websites, but they will investigate tips or complaints.
"For example if a football player has a photo of himself and his buddies drinking beer at a party, and this is brought to the attention of the athletic director, and it is an accurate depiction â€“ not a doctored photo â€“ then that student would be held accountable because that is inappropriate behavior," Lea said.
A first-time offense involving drugs, alcohol or tobacco could keep a student out of athletics or extra-curricular activities for 40 percent of the season; a third offense would get them kicked off the squad.
"We want to be able to give our kids an honorable out," said Lea. "If a student is under intense peer pressure to post something inappropriate on their blog, now they can say, â€˜I canâ€™t do that because I could get kicked off the football team.â€™"
Some frame the debate as the current incarnation of the age-old generational tug of war, with the older generation failing to understand new-fangled youth culture and fearing or denying the autonomy of their kids.
Koroknay-Palicz, 24, compared it to the shockwaves caused by Elvis Presley and rock and roll in their parentsâ€™ day. Smith said he doubts any member of Congress has a Facebook or MySpace account. The lack of understanding of cyber-age social life, they say, causes legislators and parents to see something sinister in even healthy and honest online relationships.
In one headline-grabbing case, a then-16-year-old student from Michigan secretly flew to the Middle East to meet a man sheâ€™d met on MySpace. US authorities intercepted Katherine Lester in Jordan and convinced her to turn back.
But recently, Lester went on national TV with her father to announce she is in love with and plans to marry the 20-year-old Jericho, West Bank resident she met through MySpace. Rather than being the victim of a predator, Lester and her father explained that she had formed a deep and meaningful connection with the man.
Meanwhile, Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocate, sees it as a media democracy issue.
"These are all tools that democratize the media, that allow anyone to publish and send their thoughts out to the world," he said. "All these technologies have great value as far as allowing people to speak freely and participate in national debates."