Published: Saturday, February 4, 2006
Cops alert parents to Web site postings
Kids fill the sites with details of their lives that pave the way for predators to find them.
On the Internet, social networking sites geared toward teens are attracting pedophiles and unscrupulous adults, one Mahoning Valley law enforcement expert says.
Dan Valentine, a juvenile officer with Beaver Township police, has issued a warning for parents of South Range School District pupils about the dangers of providing too much personal information on popular Web sites such as MySpace.com.
After investigating the sites, Valentine told parents in the monthly school newsletter that school officials are banning access to such sites on school computers.
In addition to MySpace.com, sites of concern mentioned in the newsletter include Xanga.com, Alldumb.com and Rotten.com.
The sites have become increasingly popular with young people over the past few years and offer very little or no restrictions on who can become a member. Site users create profile pages filled with their interests, hobbies and other personal details, as well as photographs, video clips and music.
These pages can be accessed by anyone, making the sites an ideal place for anyone wanting to arrange a meeting with another member. Language on the site is often crude and photos are sometimes lewd and suggestive. Users reveal their behavior involving sex, drinking, violence and illegal-drug use.
Parents need to know
"My main goal is to make parents aware because I cannot police the whole thing," said Valentine. "Many parents know their kids use MySpace but think it is just an e-mail program."
Valentine said that some of the information on the sites is completely harmless but that he was alarmed by the amount of accurate personal information he found when investigating MySpace. He mentioned one pupil who said she was 20 years old in her profile, but right beneath it said she was a seventh-grade basketball player at South Range Middle School, home of the Raiders, and had her photos posted.
"Any predator can get on there, search by mile radius of his home, find that information, call the school and ask when the next girl's basketball game is and show up there," said Valentine.
Dennis Dunham, South Range High School principal, said the school's computers have a filter in place, as most schools do, and student access to these types of Web sites is blocked as the schools learn of the sites, but Dunham says using the sites at school is not the real issue.
"Most dealings come from home and spill over at school," said Dunham. "Something offensive or inappropriate is said among a circle of friends [on MySpace] and then problems arise at school the next day and that's how the schools get involved."
Dunham said it's much easier for someone to be bold on the computer and say things they wouldn't say otherwise.
What prompted probe
A posting involving a middle school pupil is what spurred Valentine's investigation of the site. Pupils get together at school the next day and discuss what was posted on these Web sites about their peers and this often causes conflict.
"Our interest here is two-fold," said Mike Owen, guidance counselor at South Range Middle School. "One part is kids being nasty to each other on these sites, and the bigger part is that molesters out there can access it and locate our kids."
Owen reiterated Valentine's worry that the information children post on their MySpace.com profiles can easily help someone determine where they live or attend school.
"They post photos of themselves wearing a school uniform, or their friends put their addresses on there, and anybody can narrow it down and determine what school or neighborhood somebody is from," he said.
MySpace.com does allow users to block other users from sending them messages, but there is no way to prevent someone from seeing your profile.
Owen said they just want to encourage parents to be careful and be aware that kids are putting information on these sites that could be dangerous. He said some parents have dismissed the warnings and think there is no real danger, but the majority of parents have thanked the schools for alerting them.
Bob Fusco was surprised at the lack of supervision on the site and the content of many of the profiles.
Fusco, of Beaver Township, said he did allow his daughter, Brooke, a pupil at South Range Middle School, to use MySpace.com at home, and had no problem with the content on her site, but after investigating other users' sites and hearing of the possible dangers of the site, he and his wife, Lori, have asked Brooke to remove her site.
Fusco said Brooke understands his concerns and isn't upset about having to stop using MySpace. Fusco said they have warned their kids about the dangers of giving out personal information on the Internet, and he is also sure the discussion has arisen among pupils now that the schools have announced the sites are banned and are warning parents of the dangers of such sites.
"She used it mainly to communicate with kids at school who know her," he said. "She knows it's impossible to know certain things about people on the Internet, like what age they are or where they are."
Valentine said when he talks to parents he tells them, "You have wanted nothing more than to protect your children since the day they were born and have told them not to talk to strangers. When they get on that computer you are inviting millions of strangers into your home to talk to them."
MySpace.com contains a "safety tips" link, which offers tips on how to safely use the site and directs parents to wiredsafety.org, a Web site that offers online safety advice. MySpace.com also states on the site that it is only for those over the age of 14, though it is very easy, and common, for users to lie about their age to join.
Tom Anderson, a University of California at Los Angeles graduate, created MySpace.com in 2003. The site was originally founded as a Web portal for musicians as a means of sharing music and information on future concert locations. The site's user base has since grown beyond musicians, and as of late 2005 there were more than 42 million MySpace.com members.