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It's a parent's nightmare: A 16-year-old Port Washington (N.Y.) girl was molested by a 37-year-old man in September, after they met on MySpace.com. Local police say the man misrepresented himself when he exchanged messages online with the teen. Then he showed up at the girl's after-school job, followed her to the parking lot, forced her into his car, and attacked her. The assailant, who was arrested and released on bail, knew where she worked because she had posted it on her MySpace profile, says Port Washington Police Detective Sergeant Paul Gros.
This is the dark side of teen blogging and social networking. Along with favorite bands and best friends, kids are blogging phone numbers, class schedules, and other personal information that makes them vulnerable to anyone who wants to track them down. Across the country, law enforcement officials get some 6,000 cases a year involving teens victimized as a result of online activity, estimates Parry Aftab, a Fort Lee (N.J.) privacy lawyer who founded WiredSafety.org to help keep kids safe from cyber-criminals.
The social networks are plenty worried. Last spring, MySpace created an algorithm to identify underage users and eradicated 330,000 profiles, says Aftab. A small team of employees also reviews photographs and removes snapshots showing members topless or in offensive t-shirts. And it posts a blunt message: "If you're under 14, MySpace is not the place for you. Go away." MySpace declined to comment on the tactics, but Chief Executive Officer Chris DeWolfe says about a quarter of the company's 165 employees monitor safety through customer service.
Facebook, too, employs algorithms to remove problematic users and follows up on reports of user abuse, says general counsel Chris Kelly. Facebook college users also must have an e-mail address ending in "edu," and high school users can join only if a member invites them in. "You end up with an environment where people's profiles online are tied to their real world," says Kelly.
Many families remain in the dark about how their kids use the Net. New York parent Amy Luong had no idea her 13-year-old daughter kept a blog on Xanga.com until she got a call from her school. When Luong logged on, she was shocked. Her daughter had posted photos and her age, plus things her mom knew weren't true. "She made it sound like she was out with her friends until 1 or 2 in the morning, when I knew she had gone with her dad to a late movie," says Luong. She made her daughter remove the profile but later found she had a MySpace account despite the site's age requirement of 14.
With the ranks of teen bloggers now surpassing 4 million, Parent Teacher Associations are sending students home with guides for parents and collaborating with school administrators to hold educational meetings. Some schools are laying out new rules. One New Jersey private school has even banned online social networking for students -- even at home and outside of school hours. Still, Aftab and others say it's unrealistic to expect schools or Web sites to be solely responsible for protecting kids. "MySpace is not your child's parent," she says. That's why parents need to study up on what their kids are doing on the Web. By Jessi Hempel