Authorities: Teens at Risk on Web Sites
By MATT APUZZO, Associated Press Writer
On MySpace.com, teenagers can find kindred spirits who share their
love of sports, their passion for photography or their crush on a
Hollywood star. They can also find out where their online friends
live, where they attend school, even what they look like.
And so can adults who wish to molest the kids.
Parents, school administrators and police are increasingly worried that
teens are finding trouble online at sites like MySpace, the leader of the
social-networking sites that encourage users to build larger and larger
circles of friends. While this 'honor' used to belong to America On
Line, over the past year or two it has shifted to MySpace, among
others, possibly because of attention or 'heat' drawn to AOL due to
the proclivities of many of its users.
Police in Middletown, Conn., are investigating recent reports that as
many as seven local girls and a couple of boys were sexually assaulted
by men in their 20s who contacted them through MySpace pretending to
One girl allowed a man into her room while her parents were home,
police said, underscoring just how in the dark parents often are about
one of the most popular Web activities for teens today.
There are other reports like these scattered around the country,
prompting some parents and schools to equate the likes of MySpace with
the Internet's red-light district, even as many experts believe that
the worries are greater than the actual dangers.
Joseph Dooley is among those who has heard it all before. A retired
FBI agent who supervised the agency's first undercover Internet task
force in New England, Dooley remembers when America Online chat rooms
were the rage. Teens posted detailed profiles of themselves and
chatted with any of AOL's subscribers. Teenagers are traditionally
a lot smarter than their parents where computers are concerned, and
Dooley points out that many teens are able to trick their parents in
ways not considered much in the past.
Chat rooms soon gave way to services like MySpace, but Dooley said the
rules haven't changed and parents need to become more engaged. A lot
of the kids are 'curious' where sex is concerned, there are plenty of
adults ready willing and able to teach them how to fulfill their
curiosity. Dooley also noted that "pedophilia is not a big dark secret
to the kids ... they know what it is about, and regretfully often
times a strong-willed child _will_ make 'come-ons' to weaker-willed
adults. Many kids consider it sort of a badge of honor to 'get
molested' by grown ups. Not to tell their parents, of course, but to
brag about with their buddies. That does _not_ make it right; an
adult having sex with a kid is always wrong; the adult is _always_
the one legally liable. But kids do know the score, often times better
than their parents."
"Let the kids know, on the Internet, you don't know who you're talking
to," Dooley said. "Parents aren't the friends of their kids. Parents
needs to know and observe what their kids are doing."
That can be daunting for working parents. Keeping tabs on the kids
used to mean knowing where they went after school, not whom they
talked to in their bedrooms.
So when they hear of a new fad among teens, their instinct is to worry.
And the horror stories are indeed terrifying.
Last month, for example, 14-year-old Judy Cajuste was found strangled and
naked in a Newark, N.J., garbage bin. Police seized a computer from her
bedroom after friends said she told them of a man in his 20s she met on
MySpace. The death remains unsolved.
Beyond the threat of abduction, bullies who once made the rounds on
playgrounds are using Web logs and home pages to spread rumors and
lies faster than the schoolyard grapevine ever could.
MySpace profiles have been used to threaten classmates and in at least
one case, to mock a school principal.
Many schools have responded by restricting Internet access from school
computers. One private school in Newark, N.J., ordered students to
remove all personal blogs from the Internet, even if accessed from
home, to protect them from online predators.
Some parents, like Ululani Stauffacher of Eureka, Calif., forbid their
children from using MySpace. Stauffacher said her 17-year-old daughter
ran off for two days with a 19-year-old man she met online.
"I was going crazy," Stauffacher said. "I was just hearing things
about MySpace and incidents of girls missing and some don't get
returned to their families. All that I was thinking about was that my
daughter was going to be another statistic."
The concerns aren't limited to MySpace, but the News Corp. unit gets
the attention because of its sheer size -- 54 million users, a quarter
of them registered as teens.
MySpace forbids minors 13 and under from joining and provides special
protections for those 14 and 15 -- only those on their friends' list
can view their profiles. Nonetheless, kids lie when they sign up, and
many of their profiles carry photos of themselves in suggestive poses,
along with personal information against the site's recommendations.
Dooley points out, "remember, for many of these kids, their parents
would be horrified to find out that the teen knows exactly what
'getting molested' is all about and frankly, hopes to be the one it
happens to. Of course the kid has _no idea_ just how far that can go
"They're licking their lips and arching their back for the camera
because they can, and they have no idea of the consequences," said
Parry Aftab, an Internet safety expert.
But Aftab said most MySpace users aren't getting themselves in
trouble, either innocently or on purpose.
Experts say that banning children from using social-networking sites
is akin to forbidding them from going to the mall or the movie theater
for fear they'll be abducted, or molested. If you ban them, then they
wonder about what it is they are missing out on.
"I wish I could hover over my children 24-7, but the best I can do is
teach them that there are ways to keep themselves safe," said Steve
Jones, a communications professor who studies new media at the
University of Illinois at Chicago.
In a statement, MySpace said it has developed safety tips for parents and
children and devotes scores of employees to monitoring the site around the
clock. The site also has ways for users to report inappropriate behavior.
The company says it removes inappropriate images and closes accounts that
violate its rules.
Chris DeWolfe, MySpace's chief executive, encourages parents to talk to
their kids about Internet safety, but Aftab said many parents ignore advice
until it is too late. Aftab alao points out that some parents 'talk
too much', cluing the children in more than they should many times.
Connecticut Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, who has strictly
limited the information his 10- and 12-year-old children put on the
Internet, said he was surprised to learn that they had been contacted by
strangers they believed were pedophiles. His kids figured the strangers
were pedophiles -- ignored it and _laughed about it_ , Morano said,
but parents need to closely monitor Internet activity. Morano also
noted that many parents would be simply shocked to know what goes on
in their children's bedrooms with the computer late at night.
"You wouldn't leave your kid on the side of the highway without
supervision," Morano said. "You shouldn't put them on the Internet
highway without the same type of supervision."
Associated Press reporter Louise Chu in San Francisco contributed to this
Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.
NOTE: For more telecom/internet/networking/computer news from the
daily media, check out our feature 'Telecom Digest Extra' each day at
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/more-news.html . Hundreds of new
articles daily. And, discuss this and other topics in our forum at
For more news from Associated Press, please go to: