The Internet Parent
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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Back to School, Back to MySpace (Part II)

Back to the Black Board

State Attorneys General seem to take this Internet Safety stuff seriously. Perhaps because when trouble strikes in the form of some heinous Internet-borne tragedy, it’s usually left on the AG’s doorstep.

AGs from at least twelve states are anxious to do something about it. Much of their attention seems to be focused on the dangers of social networking sites, no doubt because that’s the most fertile soil for tragedy to take root. AGs in Connecticut and North Carolina want to make it tougher for kids to sign up.

Here’s a horror story from the North Carolina AGs office that illustrates why:
In 2006 alone, the media reported almost 100 criminal incidents across the country involving adults who used MySpace to prey or attempt to prey on children. In North Carolina, a former sheriff’s deputy was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2006 for molesting a 15-year-old Cary boy he met on MySpace. In 2006, the NC State Bureau of Investigation arrested a Boiling Spring Lakes police officer for raping a 14-year-old girl he lured through MySpace.

North Carolina AG Roy Cooper is understandably upset, and he's not alone. Last year, I had the privilege of speaking at the National Association of Attorneys General summer 2006 conference on this very topic with several colleagues from the social networking industry. The AGs were not pleased, and many related horror stories similar to Cooper’s.

One AG is taking it to the streets – and the classroom. Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell is sending his staff out to Virginia schools to educate kids about the very near and present dangers of careless social networking.

How is Virginia different? One word: LAW.

Virginia is one of the first states to mandate Internet Safety as part of the curriculum. In
Back to School: Reading, Writing and Internet Safety, Adam Hochberg quotes Virgina AG McDonnell:

"Young kids don't see how they could possibly get hurt at a computer in their own home. Parents don't know enough about the Internet to have the conversations they need to have with their kids. And so that's why we're doing this. The key now is education."

And laws that compel us to behave differently. Not just AGs, teachers, and school administrators, but ISPs, content providers, and technology companies. And law-enforcement officers. We need
informed, fresh, and thoughtful eyes on this problem from all perspectives. (I'd also add "unbiased by pre-disposition, prejudice, or profit" to the list, but I'm not that unrealistic...)

Education alone is not enough, in my opinion. North Carolina AG Cooper doesn't so either. He'd like to force age verification:

"It's better for their protection that younger kids not be on these sites. And if they are, the parents ought to know about it, the parents ought to give express consent and they ought to monitor these sites very carefully."

And why not? We restrict minors from accessing other harmful, dangerous materials and activities, like buying cigarettes and alcohol. And we restrict certain kinds of content, too, like access to R-rated movies without a parent or guardian. Should social networking sites be so different? Is it just because it's hard? Or because it's on the Internet? We need a dialog, and some sensible social policy.

And whether they know it or not, social networking sites like MySpace would benefit from some enlightened regulation.

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    By Anonymous Yvon Brousseau, at October 15, 2007 6:25 AM  

  • Thanks for your comment, Yvon.

    Education and parental involvement are absolutely essential. We can't effectively parent our kids if we don't understand the reality they're living in.

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