MySpace is Also Their Space: Ideas for Keeping Children Safe from Sexual Predators on Social-Networking Sites
52 Pages Posted: 25 May 2007
A growing number of disturbing incidents involving minors as victims of sexual solicitation, assault and even murder have been traced to a fairly new type of Internet communication, social networking sites. These sites, hugely popular with teens, provide unique and largely independent and unsupervised channels of self expression and socialization for children. Yet the sites also present real dangers to today's youth, the most serious being child victimization by sexual predators.
To understand the magnitude of the issue this Article begins by defining what social networks are, explaining how they work and tracing their ever increasing popularity. Millions of users have already registered with these social networking sites with thousands more being added daily. The social networking craze is even being adopted in the business and entertainment world and will likely be transferred to other technologies in the near future.
As currently operated, social networking sites provide a vehicle for adolescents to engage in destructive and risky behaviors leading to harmful and often permanent physical and psychological damage. The Article explores the benefits and the dangers associated with these sites including disclosure of personal information, addiction, risky sexual behavior, cyber-bullying, dangerous communities, and cyber-threats. Harassment, sexual solicitation and exploitation of children produce chronic and reoccurring effects on its victims including depression, anger, guilt and other post traumatic stress symptoms.
Current legal and educational efforts have been ineffective. Despite the risks teens continue to engage in risky behaviors. A review of current literature explains adolescent decision making and causes of risk taking. The findings on adolescent risk-taking justify revising current approaches to keeping children safe while using social networking sites. To be effective, solutions seeking to change behavior must be based on the type and cause of risk taking behavior. Although well-intentioned, many proposed solutions, grounded in law and education, fail to incorporate these theories. As a result, these proposals are unlikely to modify certain teens' risky behavior.
The Article concludes by offering additional solutions for keeping children safe based on current research. A multi-faceted approach is necessary based on different causes of risk taking. Social networking sites should be encouraged to segregate different age groups but the burden should not be theirs alone. To further promote segregating age groups, children and adults should be punished for misrepresenting their age when registering on social networking sites. Record companies used a fear of punishment strategy when deciding to sue individual file sharers for copyright infringement. Only when the risk of punishment outweighed the benefits of the peer-to-peer sharing option did behavior change. These results offer hope that a similar strategy with social networking sites may be effective in changing teens' behavior.
Finally, legal regulations, although relatively simplistic, cannot be the sole answer. Changing behavior will require not only laws and threat of punishment but also education components. Education can help change behavior by providing teens and parents with raw information about the technology and its risks. When designing Internet safety campaigns, policy makers and industry officials should pay careful attention to lessons learned from previous studies of ad campaigns on other behaviors. But providing information alone may not change any behavior and in some cases may encourage the behavior we want to discourage. Therefore education is also needed that helps create social norms or a moral climate that keeps children safe and discourage the types of behavior discussed in this Article.
Keywords: children, internet, social networking sites, MySpace
JEL Classification: K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation