April 2007 – In February, the LA Times posed the following question: Who’s to blame when a 13-year-old, referred to as Julie Doe, lies about her age, meets an older guy on MySpace.com, and accompanies him to dinner and a movie before allegedly being sexually assaulted by him in a parking lot?
According to Judge Sam Sparks, the fault does not rest with MySpace.com – a social-networking site with over 100 million users that is growing at a rate of approximately three million new profiles per month.
Social-networking sites are a popular new means of online communication that is here to stay. Instead of gathering at the local hangout, kids now meet in the virtual world of MySpace and similar sites, such as Facebook.com, Friendster.com and Xanga.com. These sites allow users to create personal profile pages that represent who they are, or a least who they claim to be. It’s similar to a souped-up diary on public display.
“It’s an online community that is part chat room, part movie theater, part shopping mall, part bar, part concert, and part slumber party,” wrote Jason Illian, author of MySpace MyKids: A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Kids and Navigating MySpace.com and cofounder of myspacemykids.com. (No longer an active website.)
Unfortunately, this virtual world of socialization that connects millions with the touch of a button doesn’t exist without problems and dangers, which have caused many people to view MySpace as nothing but a sexual predator’s playground and a portal to pornography. (See AFA Journal 6/06 and 7/06.)
A new approach
But Illian, an experienced speaker on teen issues, sees it differently, especially after researching the subject in response to questions from parents.
“One of the things that I’m passionate about is just relationships, in general,” Illian told the AFA Journal. “And MySpace has become a huge platform for people to build relationships – both good and bad.”
He claims that MySpace, when used correctly, can be a positive tool that actually strengthens the family. Illian feels so strongly about this that he has written a book and collaborated with Brandon Cotter to create interactive resources to educate parents on the use of MySpace and to encourage them to be proactive in their children’s online activity.
“The media, in general, has jumped on the MySpace panic button causing people to fear what they don’t understand,” Illian explained. “So … I started really learning about MySpace and all the tools that were available. As I started digging deeper and deeper, I saw that there were some real positive aspects to this, too.”
But he doesn’t deny that there is vulgar language and sexually explicit material on the site. He doesn’t deny that users, specifically teens, misrepresent themselves on the site in a quest for popularity and acceptance. He doesn’t even deny that using the site incorrectly puts users at a high risk of attracting sexual predators.
“[You have to] understand that there are dangers but understand that they are preventable,” Illian said.
When proper steps are taken to prevent these dangers, MySpace becomes a helpful tool for parents to invest in the lives of their techno teens.
A valuable tool
“One of the greatest positive aspects about MySpace is that it opens lines of communication,” Illian explained. “Our teens now struggle with things that we didn’t struggle with when we were 14 or 15 years old. … MySpace can be a platform [for parents] to learn about these struggles.”
Teens post a myriad of information on MySpace.com. Some teens may use their profiles to post Scripture and initiate faith-based conversations. Others may use their profiles to promote their sexuality, drug use and drinking binges.
Either way, it’s an open door to the heart of a teen, and Illian encourages parents to walk through it – but not without caution and a proper perspective.
For example, Illian recently spoke with a father who saw his son’s MySpace account which displayed conversations about pot smoking, among other topics.
“It was a red flag to me,” Illian quoted the father as saying. “It was a warning sign, and now I can realize that what my teen is dealing with is just a symptom of a deeper-rooted problem there. … Had it not been for MySpace, I may have missed it.”
This is a prime example of what Illian is talking about in terms of using MySpace as a communication tool to strengthen the family.
“His teen highlighted something, and now he is getting a chance to deal with it in a positive way,” Illian said of the situation. “You can either blow up and lose your cool about it, which would probably drive your teen underground. Or you can use it as a teachable moment and say, ‘OK, now that I know the issue here, I have to figure out how to deal with that.’”
In addition to creating a platform of communication, Illian also believes that MySpace helps kids and teens become savvy people in the Internet world.
“The Internet is going to be here when they’re adults,” he explained. “If we teach them how to use it well, as kids, and teach them how to find good information and how to put positive content out there, it can be a great teaching tool.”
A parental responsibility
But in order for all of this to take place, Illian informs parents that they must be proactive, and many parents are not.
“A lot of parents don’t even know what they’re upset about,” Illian said.
To be effective parents, they have to educate themselves in advanced technology. Illian knows that many parents are hesitant of doing so after hearing the horror stories about MySpace, like that of Julie Doe.
“However, what they don’t know is that [Julie’s] parents didn’t know that their daughter had been chatting online for months, didn’t ask any questions about who was picking their precious little girl up from school and who this guy was,” Illian explained. “They didn’t do any of the parental things you would normally do, and MySpace got blamed for all of that.”
In the end, the judge ruled in favor of MySpace and not the parents who sued News Corp, owner of the site, for $30 million claiming MySpace did not offer enough protection for its members.
The parents didn’t win their case “because it was a parenting issue, not a MySpace issue,” Illian concluded.
“If anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace,” ruled Sparks, according to an LA Times article.
“What makes good parents in the real world is them being intimately involved in their kids’ lives,” Illian added. “It’s no different on MySpace.”
This intimate involvement means doing such things as spot-checking a child’s account on a regular basis, which can be done in about 10 minutes a week.
But Illian is quick to point out that parents must first decide if MySpace is even right for their children. Some children may be too immature for it. Others may be in harm’s way because of poor use of the site.
“If parents are uncomfortable with some of the images [and other material on MySpace], I recommend that they don’t let their kids on MySpace,” he said.
However, he does encourage parents to have a balanced approach to the issue. Becoming too polarized in their perspectives can only exacerbate the existing problems or create new ones.
“Technology is simply a platform,” Illian explained. “It’s not inherently good or bad. It’s how it’s used based on the users.”
A wealth of resources
Illian helps cultivate a balanced perspective of MySpace, expands on the points mentioned in this story and discusses many more in his book and on the interactive Web site.
The book, MySpace MyKids, is divided into three parts that consist of eight chapters, complete with Scripture. In the book, he offers practical information about MySpace that is easily understood. It is available at online booksellers.
The MySpace MyKids project is for parents, teachers, pastors and anyone who has teens who are active in the online world. Children and teens can benefit from the lessons, too, especially if they complete them alongside their parents. Illian said the book is written from a Christian perspective, whereas the workshop is presented from a family perspective.
“Either way, we are believers, so we have a Biblical foundation in all that we do,” he said. “Even though there are families who don’t consider themselves Christians, they are going to have struggles with their kids online. I hope that we can equip them, as well.”
Because, after all, “At the end of the day,” Illian said, “there is no better Internet filter than parents.”