Mitigating the Dangers of the Information Age
> 2/20/2006 9:19:53 AM

By providing a gateway to the information of the universe, the web has changed the way that we think about the world around us. But trafficking in information can be a dangerous two way street. For every person who learns about history, or keeps in touch with friends in far off places, there is someone who is learning how to make a bomb or concoct methamphetamine in a bathtub.

In December, the New York Times ran an extensive cover story that detailed how webcams and high speed internet connections were turning children into unwitting participants in pornography rings. These new technologies were putting predators into direct visual and often audio contact with children who may or may not have been aware of the perils they were facing. In recent weeks, a new potential threat has emerged in the ever-changing defend and attack pattern that has been established by those who look to use the net for good and those that want to use it for evil.

Highlighted by the murder of a Newark, NJ, 14-year-old in January, a new debate is raging over the safety of social networking sites., and are examples of just a few of these types of websites that allow users to create a personal profile and meet new folks in ways that aren't all that different from dating websites. After logging in, users can provide as much or a little information as they choose. The maleability of these sites is their major allure. Myspace in particular allows people the opportunity to create a page that reflects their own interests, moods and personalities. Users can also post pictures of themselves and friends, as well as post any and all personal information that they choose. Sometimes this can be something as innocuous as a city name or region. Other times it can information that is possibly more harmful such as email or even phone number.

Social networking sites are infinitely customizable, so users can make their information as available as they choose. But what this customization ability leads to is also something more sinister: people who are not as they appear. Creating a false personality is shockingly easy (indeed, I doubt that my Facebook friend Hulk Hogan is in fact Terrance Bollea of WWE fame). This can lead to a dangerous "wolf-in-sheep's-clothing" situation where a sexual predator could easily create a page posing as a teen or young adult, and thereby gain access to literally millions of information containing profiles.

The aforementioned murder of 14-year-old Judy Cajuste, and recent reports out of Middletown, CT, and other communities that have linked Myspace specifically to sexual assult and other crimes have reignighted the issue of safety on the web. News Corp., the Rupert Murdoch chaired company that recently bought Myspace for $850 million, has been scrambling to address this issue in a calm manner, and one that doesn't stifle the free-flowing atmosphere that has made Myspace such a success.

While there are horror stories that will always circulate, these websites are not inherently "bad" or "negligent." Like much of the new technology that is changing our lives, these networking sites place the ball in the court of the user and allow him or her to customize their experience. The trouble is that often teens and young adults are not prepared for the decisions that they are forced to make. Naiveté and innocence can often lead youths to be more trusting than their new online friends deserve. And while the blame being thrown at News Corps. and other websites isn't surprising, it is largely unwarranted. In the Boston Herald article about the situation in Middletown, the writer quotes Connecticut Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, who is also the father of a 10- and a 12-year-old: "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."

Morano hit on the first part of the solution, and that is parenting. As with any new fad or practice that has changed the way children interact and entertain themselves, parents have a responsibility to monitor and understand the internet. The whole situation with these networking sites has illustrated that often children aren't prepared to cut through the many layers of the internet to make sure they are safe. They may inadvertently be arming predators with dangerous information. Parents should surf with their kids, even teens. Talking frankly about where teens hang out in cyberspace isn't an invasion of their privacy, it's just the same thing one would do if their child was leaving the house every night at 8:30.

The second piece of the solution has to come from the internet companies themselves. There needs to be dialogue and back and forth between corporations such as News Corps. and schools, parenting groups and the media in general about these dangers and what is being done about them. The internet is an amazine resource which can provide limitless data and connectivity. We just need to do our best to make sure that it is doing it as safely and securely as possible.

Gawker, an NYC-centric media blog has a nice (if tongue-in-cheek) round up of other Myspace media coverage that has been springing up across the country.

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