With the explosion of media reports surrounding purported sexual predators online, lawmakers are considering placing restrictions on minors’ access to social networking Web sites like MySpace.com.
But some experts worry that the free speech benefits of online social networking are getting lost in the debate over Internet safety.
The reality of danger
MySpace, which in July became the most-visited Web site in the United States, is the virtual home to more than 90 million registered users worldwide. Like any population, it has its share of problems – MySpace is facing a $30 million lawsuit from one of its members, a 14-year-old girl who claims that she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old man she met on the site.
But despite the heavy media play surrounding this incident and a handful of others, the number of minors who are targeted online by sexual predators is a point of some dispute.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that in 2000, one in five Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 had been “sexually solicited” online. However, a study specific to MySpace completed in June by a professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills found that only about 7 to 9 percent of MySpace users have received a sexual proposition on the site. The study also reported that “nearly all of those simply blocked the requester from contacting them through their MySpace page.”
Henry Jenkins, director of Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he thinks national media coverage of MySpace and other similar sites has overplayed a few instances of child predation online, while other benefits of the sites have been downplayed. This has left some parents and school administrators with a bad taste for social networking sites, he said.
“It’s very easy to turn adults against those technologies that young people are most associated with, because all it takes is one incident, or one scary thing – whether it’s a school shooting in the case of video games, or child predation in the case of MySpace – and then you suddenly have this thing that everyone grabs hold of and is absolutely convinced defines the phenomenon as a whole,” Jenkins said.
Some of this fear, he said, also can be chalked up to the generation gap.
“I think if you look at the relationship of young people to technology, what you see happening over and over again is that young people are the early adopters of media technology,” Jenkins said. “They’re looking for ways to communicate with their peers, ways to communicate outside of adult control and supervision, and adults are often spooked by this because this wasn’t part of the world of their own childhoods.”
Deleting online predators
While it is impossible to know exactly how many cases of child predation can be linked to social networking Web sites, one U.S. Congressman has introduced legislation that would bar minors from accessing MySpace and other similar sites at school and in public libraries.
The Deleting Online Predators Act, introduced by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., passed in the House in July and was awaiting discussion in the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee as of early August. The bill would amend the Children’s Internet Protection Act – which already requires schools and public libraries to block sexual content on the Internet from minors – by including social networking Web sites and chat rooms specifically in the language of the law.
Fitzpatrick’s press secretary, Jeff Urbanchuk, cited media reports of child predation as one reason for the congressman’s interest in sponsoring the bill. Urbanchuk said DOPA is an attempt to keep laws up to date with emerging technology.
“When I was growing up, [predators] used to go into parks, and you were always told not to talk to strangers,” he said. “Now, they’ve taken advantage of a new technology that would to an extent preserve their anonymity and allow them to pose as a younger person, and they’re taking advantage of that to really turn it into their own virtual hunting ground.”
Urbanchuk said DOPA would still allow students to access social networking Web sites, with parental consent, for educational purposes.
“The question that it comes down to is the government is funding access to the Internet, and the government has a responsibility to make sure that children are safe,” he said.
But Jenkins, of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, said DOPA could “politically disempower” students who want to use MySpace or other similar networking sites for political or social discussion, especially if these students do not have access to a computer at home.
“The effect is that it leaves the kids that only have access to these sites through public spaces further shut out of the defining experiences of their generation,” he said.
Kelli Herrick, a 17-year-old recent graduate of Novi High School in Novi, Mich., has accounts on MySpace, Facebook.com and LiveJournal.com, and she also uses the youth civic action Web site Mobilize.org as an outlet for political opinions. She said she found out about DOPA on Facebook, and she has written letters to her congressmen and the president to protest the bill. She has also encouraged her friends online to do the same.
Herrick said she thinks the provisions DOPA calls for would constitute censorship.
“Whether or not it’s vocal, or you’re writing something online or writing something in an article, it’s all the same, so if you’re choosing to share information online, you shouldn’t be limited,” she said. “That’s like saying you can express your opinion, as long as you’re not in a government building. It’s like saying you can say things against the government as long as you’re not near the government.”
David Smith, executive director and founder of Mobilizing America’s Youth, the Washington, D.C., based group that operates Mobilize.org, said that many students just like Herrick are finding that social networking sites can be “a great tool for social activism.”
He said this was demonstrated particularly with the rallies that took place in the spring against congressional anti-illegal immigration legislation. In March, thousands of high school students across the country, including an estimated 40,000 in Southern California, walked out of school in protests, many of which were organized in part on MySpace.
“There was so much conversation, at least within the Beltway, saying ‘Where did this come from? This issue, we didn’t realize it was so hot out there, so how could you mobilize tens of thousands of young people?’” Smith said. “It seemed like it came out of nowhere, when if these people were actually on these various sites and had been able to be privy to these different conversations, they would have realized that these conversations had been happening for a long time, and because of the way social networking sites are designed, it’s easy to activate people and get them to do stuff offline as well.”
And although Mobilizing America’s Youth was not directly involved with the immigration protests, Smith said the organization uses MySpace and several other social networking sites to inform students about political issues and motivate them to get involved in the group’s campaigns. One of these causes is the Save Our Social Networks campaign against DOPA.
“There are very few members of Congress that have a MySpace account, I don’t think any of them have Facebook accounts,” Smith said. “So they have no personal connection to these networks that millions upon millions use. They have no concept of how these sites are used positively.”