Online, putting entire lives on view

THE BALTIMORE SUN

She's 16, goes to a Catholic girls school in Baltimore and thinks that "love comes and goes like the wind." And the photo she chose for her profile on MySpace.com - the one place she can show the whole world who she is - features her posterior in a polka-dot bikini.

Americans - from teens on up, and with varying degrees of decorum - are turning by the tens of millions to MySpace and similar social networking Web sites as a way to promote themselves, espouse their beliefs, showcase their talents, seek romance and make friends.

Through profiles, blogs and multimedia effects, users can reflect their personalities (or construct new ones) in an unmonitored forum that is part personal ad, part podium - seemingly intimate and private, but in reality as public as laundry hanging on the line.

Polka-dot bikini, for instance, may not have had MySpace's 43 million members in mind when she constructed her profile. But it's available to them and anyone else with an Internet connection, including her parents, college admissions officers, prospective employers or violent predators - all of whom, Internet safety advocates say, have made use of such sites as well.

This week in Baltimore, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County student was charged with beating to death a 27-year-old woman while on a first date they arranged through MySpace, the largest and most successful of social networking sites including Facebook.com, Friendster.com and Xanga.com.

When sensational cases like that grab the headlines, they overshadow what many see as the more common risks of such Web sites: how so many people, particularly teenagers, fail to grasp the implications of sharing private or intimate information, and open their lives to strangers.

For teens, blogging is of their generation. It is where they can assert their identity, proclaim their individuality, even rebel. Web sites like MySpace, some argue, have replaced the mall as their haunt of choice.

On it, they can connect, reach out to the popular crowd and make an impression. In doing so, they may cross boundaries, posting provocative pictures or written accounts of sex, drinking and drug use, real or imagined.

Like adults, many of whom have made their own Internet blunders, young people are lulled by the false sense of security sitting alone in the comfort of home provides. And they are less likely to have fully thought out the consequences of their actions.

"Many teens seem to have a false sense of privacy, and think that no adults, school officials or people involved in law enforcement will ever see their blog," said Parry Aftab, executive director of Wiredsafety.org, an Internet safety organization.

"This sense of privacy combined with peer pressure and the immediacy of posting leads them to post more outrageous content than they probably normally would."

"I've gotten a lot of messages from creepy guys: 'Do you want to talk? Do you want to meet? You sound really cool,'" said Katie Gieron, 18, a member of MySpace and Facebook. "But I would never meet somebody online. I think that's a really weird way of meeting your future husband. Anyone can sound good online. It's really easy to lie."

"A lot of people use it for that purpose, but I think of it more as a way to keep in touch with friends and family," added Gieron, a Loyola College freshman from White Marsh.

Gieron doesn't put provocative photos of herself on her profile. "I think that's stupid, especially when you're in high school and don't have a lot of common sense. A lot of them are just very trusting, putting these scandalous pictures of themselves on and figuring that their parents aren't going to look at it."

In the wake of the killing that surfaced this week, Gieron said her mother called her yesterday and suggested she remove the name of her workplace from her file.

"When something becomes as popular as this is, you're going to have that one bonehead out of a million," said Jenna Dietrich, 27, a Baltimore real estate agent and MySpace member for six months. "MySpace is great, and it's really fun. People who use it should know you don't take candy from a stranger and you don't give out personal info on the Internet."

MySpace says it forbids anyone under 14 from using its site but has no way of telling whether people lie about their age. While it was not intended for teenagers when it started three years ago, they make up a large and fast-growing segment of its 43 million users.

A study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project late last year found that half of all teens - roughly 12 million - have created content for the Internet: either blogs, a personal Web page or other content. Girls 15 to 17 are the most likely to have a blog; 25 percent keep one. Of all teens online, 20 percent have created a blog, compared with 7 percent of adult Internet users.

"Teens are not content to consume online content passively. ... [Technology has] given them the tools to create, remix and share content on a scale that had previously only been accessible to the professional gatekeepers of broadcast, print and recorded media outlets," the report said.

The freedom to mix media, share music and design their pages is what draws young people to MySpace, said researcher Mary Madden.

"You can post video, audio and text in a format that ends up looking like a collage. Rather than a straight blog with entries by dates, it looks more like a dorm bedroom than a static Web site. It's cool, it's free and it allows them to show their individuality and creativity."

Madden said the study found that 62 percent of parents said they monitor what sites their children visit, but apparently not all teens are aware of it. Only 33 percent of them thought their parents checked their Internet use.

While some children's advocates recommend that parents check a child's profile regularly for objectionable content, Madden said, "kids are still one step ahead of their parents in this stuff." Some teenagers have multiple profiles, one that's parent-sanctioned and another that parents don't know about.

"There are good reasons for having social networking," Aftab said. "Ideally it wouldn't have been made available to teenagers, but the horse is out of the barn. We need to recognize we are putting powerful tools in their hands at a time they may not be able to handle it and keep them as safe as we can."

Across the country, schools have restricted access to the Web sites from school computers. Many have begun to alert parents and students of risks, with private schools at the forefront.

Maryvale Prep, a Baltimore County Catholic school for girls in grades six through 12, sent letters to all parents about MySpace and similar Web sites in October.

After finding inappropriate material on the profiles of some Maryvale students, the school urged parents to check the site and gave them directions for doing so, said Dean of Students Margaret White.

"A lot of parents were surprised to see their daughters on there and some of the things that they were saying. Their response back to us was, 'Thank you for sharing this with us, because it was eye-opening.'"

Such Web sites are blocked on the school's computers, White said, and the school is looking into having someone from the FBI address the students on hazards of the Internet.

In Connecticut, police are investigating seven cases involving allegations of sexual assault against teenage girls by men they met through MySpace, which one police official there described as "a predator's dream come true."

Crimes in Virginia and New Jersey, meanwhile, have also been linked with MySpace. Spokesmen for the site did not respond to requests for an interview. But the blame for such incidents - be they criminal or simply embarrassing - doesn't lie with MySpace, Aftab says.

"It's real easy to point fingers, to say, 'It's not my fault; it's MySpace's fault,'" she said. "But MySpace isn't raising your kid."

Aftab is involved in the March 1 launch of Yfly.com, which she said was developed as a safer alternative Web site, exclusively for teens.

Founded by two young entrepreneurs and actor and singer Nick Lachey, the site will try to get teens more involved, writing movie reviews and essays, and avoiding online idleness.

"They don't want to be hassled by 47-year-olds telling them how cute they are," Aftab said. "For those kids who are tired of it, this is the answer."

She said the site will have a "report the creep" button for such occasions and that she will attempt to prosecute anyone past high school age she finds using the site.

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

Sun reporter John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
37°