“GTG, QT … PIR … TLK-2-U-L-8-R!” If you’re under the age of 30, this sentence makes perfect sense. If not, keep reading.
What it really says is: “Got to go, cutie … parent in room … talk to you later.”
This new nonverbal lingo is basically a form of shorthand used to communicate in cyberspace via text messaging, instant messaging, blogging or any other means of wireless or online technology.
Not only does it save time in a fast-paced world, it keeps parents in the dark when it comes to understanding their children’s way of communicating in a technologically advanced world.
One aspect of this communication is social networking sites, more commonly know by their official Web site names of MySpace.com, Xanga.com and Facebook, among others.
A social networking site is “sort of a cyber combination of a yearbook, personal diary and social club,” as defined by MSNBC.com.
“It’s the way kids communicate today,” said Al Kush, deputy director of WiredSafety.org. “[To them], it’s just a nice, convenient, fun thing to do.”
But that’s not all. For some social networking site users, their frequent activity on the sites is becoming an invitation to crime and, in some cases, a death trap. Some are posting personal information such as their full names, school names, cell phone numbers and addresses, making themselves easy prey for sexual predators. In a sense, teens are baiting their own hooks, trolling for friends but attracting sharks.
The sharks are stalking MySpace.com, “the second largest Web site of any kind,” according to Rebecca Hagelin, family advocate and author of Home Invasion. Today, MySpace has about 70 million registered users, the majority consisting of Gen Y-ers, those born between 1976 and 2001.
MySpace was started by entrepreneurs Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, who met while working for an online storage company. The techno-savvy pair created a social networking site that promoted bands and gave consumers a central location to audition and download music.
Visiting the site became a craze and spread by word-of-mouth, thus gaining the attention of the music industry. As of February 2006, more than one million music artists had pages on MySpace, including superstars like U2 and Madonna.
But MySpace quickly evolved into more than a band site.
According to USA Today, MySpace is “a universe of hundreds of thousands of personal Web pages [some of which are laced with profanity, pornography and sexually explicit dialogue] created by its users … to express their interests and display their personality.”
Such interests are expressed through digital photos, music downloads, personality profiles, icons and banners among other features. Users are also able to post comments, send notes in the form of bulletins, instant message each other and display their personal thoughts and opinions in the form of blogs, which are much like online diaries. However, these diaries are not kept under lock and key but can be viewed by the entire world.
What social networking users, especially teens, don’t realize is that MySpace is not “my space” at all. Some teens are oblivious to this and begin living in their own cyberspace bubble, thinking it’s only their friends who are reading their MySpace pages. Too frequently these “friends” turn out to be predators in disguise.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, one in five children online is solicited sexually. While it’s next to impossible to know how many pedophiles are online, there is more than enough evidence to know they are out there waiting for their next vulnerable target. After all, Connecticut Detective Frank Dannehey says a full name and a photo are the only essentials needed by any online predator.
“[M]ost of the time when kids get into trouble online, it’s not because they went out looking for trouble, it’s because trouble found them,” Kush said. “A lot of them get embarrassed, and they feel they’ll get in trouble, and they cut themselves off from the very help that they need, which is other family members, to help them get clear of it.
“[Predators] rely on the kid feeling embarrassed and feeling guilty, and they play on that in their own way to isolate the kids from their parents,” he continued. “That’s why a lot of parents have no idea this stuff is going on until it’s too late, in many cases.”
For example, MSNBC.com reported that within 60 seconds of logging onto an Internet Relay Chat channel, one is likely to be propositioned for sex. Online predators use these channels along with chat rooms and social networking sites to lure the children into a face-to-face meeting.
The prevalence of this online luring tactic was most recently seen on four different broadcasts of To Catch a Predator on Dateline NBC. NBC Reporters and volunteers from Perverted Justice, a watchdog group that catches online predators by posing as children, held sting operations in various U.S. cities.
Perverted Justice volunteers set up computers at a designated house where volunteers took on their childlike personas and began chatting online. Within a short amount of time, men were showing up at the house ready to have sex with minors. Some brought beer, others brought sex novelties, and one even entered the house nude.
During the first sting operation, “Men from all over Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., arrived at this house after chatting about sex, thinking they were meeting a 12-, 13-, or 14-year-old who is home alone,” said Dateline’s Chris Hansen. “Nineteen men in three days, from the down-and-out to pillars of the community [arrived at the house]” – from school bus drivers to special education teachers to ministers.
In a recent WorldNetDaily column, Hagelin lists a sampling of similar cases. These deal specifically with MySpace:
In February, a 14-year-old New Jersey girl was found dead in a dumpster after arranging a meeting with a stranger on MySpace.
Hartford, Connecticut, officials are investigating eight sexual assault cases after teenage girls met men on MySpace.
In Lafayette, Louisiana, four teen girls were sexually assaulted by a local pervert who found them on MySpace.
In another Louisiana case, a predator lay in wait for a teen girl in the parking lot of her place of employment, which he had found on her profile page.
Even more recently, Fox News reported, “Five teenage boys accused of plotting a shooting rampage at their high school [in Riverton, Kansas] on the anniversary of the Columbine massacre were arrested … after a message authorities said warned of a gun attack appeared on the Web site MySpace.com.”
No magic bullet
The reports are endless, but the problems don’t have to be. According to Hagelin and Kush, the answer lies in the hands of parents, although they are partially to blame for the initial problems.
“When you marry sloppy parenting, a technological revolution and pornography – as pervasive as it is today – that’s a recipe for disaster for our children [and for] their physical safety and their moral and spiritual health,” Hagelin explained. “It’s the perfect storm, in other words, and our kids are the ones that are the victims caught up in it. [So], it’s time for hands-on parenting.”
Kush agrees, “[While] there’s nothing you can do apart from unplugging the computer that will make them 100% safe… parents have to become actively involved in their kids’ online activities. There’s just no way around it.”
But at the same time, “there’s no magic bullet,” Kush explained. Therefore, it is going to take an extra effort on behalf of the parents to become familiar with the technological advances of the day.
“If they don’t know the technology … that doesn’t excuse them from being parents,” he said. “They are still the authority figure in the family,” and they are going to have to monitor their children’s online activity on a consistent basis.
Kush encourages parents to talk to their children about any accounts they may have on social networking sites, and treat the conversation as a learning experience. Let the child teach the parent about social networking sites, and if the parent finds anything questionable in the process, instruct the child to remove it using his password.
Not only does this give parents an insider’s perspective on what their child is doing online, it also gives the child the opportunity to contribute his technical knowledge to the family.
“[So] unless parents can stand in the gap and protect their kids …, then the world will be passing its values on to our children by default, rather than parents doing it actively,” Hagelin concluded.
After all, a parent’s inability to act could be a predator’s ability to attack.
SIDEBAR: Strategies for parents