MySpace caters to the concerns

Maybe it took a multi-million dollar lawsuit, but MySpace has created some new rules in order to protect the safety of minors.
MySpace users who are 18 or over will no longer be able to request to be on a 14- or 15-year-old’s friends’ list unless they already know either the youth’s e-mail address or full name. This is to prevent prowlers from scoping for youth in MySpace, but will allow parents, relatives and other adults to be able to befriend a child — IF they know his or her email address. This policy will not remove those adults who already are on minors’ pages, so those with ill intent could be working overtime to befriend as many minors as possible before this rule goes into effect.
One of the major limitations to this regulation is that MySpace currently has no mechanism for verifying that users submit their true age when registering. I know many people who are supposedly 99 years old. And if someone wants to choose an age closer to their real one, it doesn’t take a math genius to figure out what date of birth you need to register under in order to become an 18 year old and completely available to the public eye.
Another limitation is that this may encourage teens to become more secretive with their MySpace accounts. They may create one account with their real age for their parents to monitor: I’m sure it will be full of school events and some cool new music. And then a teen can have his or her “real” space, using a different email address, where they learn about parties, crushes, and other assorted gossip.
MySpace does need to increase its regulations. But don’t think that there are not easy work arounds for teens who want to have a public profile.

Every parent’s nightmare

By now you have read about the 16-year old girl from Michigan who was on her way to Jericho to marry a man she met on MySpace. She was an honor student, a “good girl” who somehow managed to convince her parents to get her a passport (she said she wanted to go to neighboring Canada to see a friend — so much for the beefing of security post 9/11 making her life SAFER: before 9/11 passports were not needed to get to Canada…). Then she snuck out of her house and boarded a plane to meet her future husband.

Yup — husband. Apparently the 21-year-old native of the West Bank and the Michigan girl were going to get married after she was to williningly converted to Islam and signed a marriage contract.

This story is about as prototypical (possibly stereotypical) when it comes to explaining parent fears about MySpace as any story can be. The girl in question was not really considered a “trouble-maker” and yet she boarded a plane for a war-ridden region to marry someone 5 years old who she had never met face to face without her family knowing can make anyone believe it could happen to their child.

But could it have been avoided? Possibly. The parents could have been a little more inquisitive about the trip to Canada — where exactly was she going? Who would she be staying with? Her lies could have unraveled at that point. Adults can also check in with their children about their friends and who they are talking to and spending most of their time with. Given that she wanted to marry this guy, I am going to assume that they had interacted extensively online. Would his name ever come up if asked? Maybe, maybe not.

Meanwhile, the scorned husband-to-be is heartbroken on the other side of the world. He resents being labeled a predator and really believed that he had truly found love online. His parents knew about his relationship with the American girl and were supportive of the union.

The girl turns 17 this week, which means she is a year away from being able to unite with this young man without anyone being able to stop her legally. Will they still be together then? Probably not, as I would imagine that many precautions are being taken to keep them apart. But the internet is a place where one can create many identities and have many contact sources. If the two really do love each other, they can wait a year and become a true modern-day Romeo and Juliet.

Will Dateline put itself out of business?

For the past several months, Dateline has been targeting online predators. Although the TV-viewing audience continues to be enthralled week after week, each time the episode is the same thing over and over again: A man shows up to a random house expecting to hook up (inappropriately) with an underage girl and instead comes face to face with a news reporter and a camera crew. Each time, the man in question tries to make some plausible excuse as to why he is even there, nevermind with fast food in hand and sometimes only partially clothed.

My question is this: Why would anyone risk picking someone up on the Internet — a child no less — given even the slightest chance of not only getting caught but also caught on camera? And even if you don’t become as infamous as those on Dateline, there are news stories cropping up all over the place, like this one from the Chicago Tribune about police setting up their own stings to catch pedophiles. And then there is the web site Perverted Justice who started this whole thing — and whose 27-year-old founder recently signed a six-figure contract with Dateline, proving that this fascination isn’t going away any time soon.

Obviously, I am over-simplifying this issue. There are some people out there who are compulsive, mentally ill, and cannot help themselves. But even then, the idea of finding “prey” online seems a high risk strategy. Maybe by showing people getting caught time and time again, Dateline and Perverted Justice will put themselves out of business? One can hope, but not count on it.