December 9, 2005





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Virtual communities harbor dangers for teens

By Shannon Weatherford

     This is part two in a three part series concerning the use of online communities, blogging sites and personal web pages by teens and the resulting concerns and issues. This installment focuses on the ways teens and adult predators alike are misusing these sites and the consequences, as well as providing some insight as to why teens are participating in such risky behavior.
     Most parents are familiar with many of the virtual threats awaiting their kids online, with pornography topping the list, and have taken some necessary steps to keep them safe. Those same parents would be shocked, however, to learn that their own teenage daughter may be posting suggestive photos of herself online, through a web page she designed, as well as listing her sexual preference and whether she likes to drink, smoke and party.
     Parents are more than aware that bullying is still a regular school yard practice, but most don’t know that the bully has moved from the actual school yard to the virtual school yard and that the effects of cyberbullying can be even more psychologically devastating to a teen than face-to-face bullying. And meeting up with “friends” in a chat room could mean that the 15-year-old they are pouring their feelings out to may actually be an adult sexual predator posing as a teen in order to create a connection with an underage victim and entice them into a personal meeting.
     These scenarios are as real as they are scary, and they occur far more frequently than many adults realize. Teens today are living online lives that their parents are completely unaware of. MySpace.com, though not a site designed specifically for teens, is popular among adolescents nonetheless. The website bills itself as “a place for friends,” and on the surface it all seems innocuous enough. Users build a profile and create a personal web page to reflect their personality and to tell others about themselves as well as post photos. Once a profile is created, it can be viewed by anyone visiting MySpace.com, and users can also send invitations to their friends to view their profile, link with friends to create a “social network,” meet others through the website, create or join online groups and forums and even write their own blogs, or online journals, though once a profile is created, it can be viewed by anyone visiting the site.
     Besides those using MySpace.com to keep in touch with distant friends and relatives, it has also become a popular dating site for single adults, as well as an avenue for swingers and others seeking unorthodox sexual partnerships to meet one another. Although the site’s terms of service specifically state that users must be 14 years of age or older to create a profile, proof of age is not necessary to sign up and many teens younger than 14 have profiles through MySpace.com. And while MySpace.com rules state that users must agree not to post messages containing nudity, violence or offensive subject matter and also prohibits the use of last names, telephone numbers and addresses, some users follow these rules while many others do not. MySpace.com does not actively monitor for violations of those rules, further stating in the terms of service that all postings are the sole responsibility of the user, effectively releasing the site of any potential liability.
     The popularity of MySpace.com, which now boasts more than 13.5 million users around the world, has led to similar sites geared directly toward the younger demographic – Xanga.com, Blurty.com, StudentCenter.org to name a few – and the postings are just as revealing and personal on these sites as well, which is why they have become such fertile hunting ground for sexual predators, who often hide behind a phony teenage persona in order to develop personal relationships with teens. Teens often use these sites in much the same way adults use MySpace.com – as a matching service to make connections with others for a variety of sexual activities, ranging from online discussions about sex to making arrangements to meet and “hook up.” In the context of these relationships, teens may post or provide photos or videos of a sexually suggestive or explicit nature.
     The Internet has also become a free-for-all where bullying and cruelty are rampant. Bullying at it’s core is about power and control, whether on the school yard or on the computer. Cyberbullying has the added aspect of invisibility, the ability to inflict emotional pain without ever having to see the effects. And it’s hard to hide from online bullying. While kids can find refuge from the school yard bully in the safety of their own homes, the cyberbully follows them, lurking in their bedroom, the family room, the library – anywhere a computer is located. Computers aren’t the only tools of this new bullying trade, either; cell phones and hand-held texting devices hold as much promise for a cyberbully as does the computer.
     Cyberbullying can take a variety of forms: repeatedly sending offensive, rude and insulting messages; sending or posting cruel gossip or rumors about a peer to damage their reputation and friendships; breaking into a peer’s e-mail or instant message account to pose as them and send messages that will make them look bad, get them in trouble or ruin their reputation or friendships; tricking a peer into revealing a secret or embarrassing information and then sharing or posting that information online; intentionally excluding a peer from online discussions or groups.
     Cyberbullies are often more vicious than those who tease and taunt in person. Because of the added distance and sense of anonymity that this form of impersonal communication engenders, it’s easier for teens to say or do things online that may typically be out of character for them. They can be as mean and vicious as they want since they aren’t directly confronting the person and seeing the effects their words or actions are having. And, because it’s easy to say, “It must have been someone else using my screen name,” they don’t even have to own up to and take responsibility for the hurt that they have caused.
     But even more unsettling scenarios are those involving teens using these sites to express intentions of committing violent acts towards themselves or others. Shortly after the story of 18-year-old David Ludwig murdering the parents of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Kara Borden, in Pennsylvania hit the news, it was discovered that both teens had MySpace.com profiles - Kara’s profile listed her age as 17 – and blogs on Xanga.com that hinted at their “secret” relationship. Closer to home, a 17-year-old from Mission Viejo committed suicide last week after blogging about his intentions to harm himself for several months on his MySpace.com page, where he described himself as “married” and “8 feet, 11 inches tall.” Just before shooting himself in the bathroom of his family’s home, he typed the message “call the police” on the site and sent out a suicide text message over his cell phone. And only a month prior to that, 19-year-old William Freund of Aliso Viejo shot and killed two neighbors before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide. He had detailed his intentions of going on a shooting rampage in online forums where he was a frequent poster.
     The Internet seems to almost fuel outrageous behavior, from cyberbullying to trying on all manner of sexual personalities to even more threatening and dangerous activities, in part because it’s a sort of gray area for social interaction, diluting social inhibitions as a result of the extended distance, both physical and emotional. The Internet is a community that seems to have grown too quickly to develop its own societal and moral norms and parents and adults are now faced with not only trying to keep pace with the ever-evolving social uses of the Internet, but also explaining to teens that just because they are separated from the rest of the Internet world physically doesn’t mean that they are necessarily secure from real-world dangers as a result.


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