Sixteen-year-old Piper is a parent's dreaman excellent student, a leader, and positive role model among her peers at church. Only one thing has ever caused discord in her family: MySpace.com.
Piper insists her parents are being overprotective because they have banned her from this popular social networking site most of her friends have surfed for years. She thinks they've been influenced by media scare tactics that hype horrible stories of teens victimized by people they've met on this website. She also thinks her parents don't know enough about what's really going on at MySpace to make an informed decision.
Piper's mom, Julie, is admittedly cautious about anything that could seriously affect her children's future. She thinks Piper is too young to recognize the dangers associated with MySpace. She worries Piper could post something that might not be appropriate for the eyes of that future employer or college admissions counselor. And, yes, the terrifying media reports have had their effect. Julie just doesn't know enough about MySpace to let Piper venture into what could be a very dangerous situation.
Piper and Julie are at a stalemate. Whenever the topic comes upwhich is regularly, because Piper receives invitations from friends to join them on MySpace almost dailythey argue. This divergence of perspectivesa kid's naiveté and enthusiasm versus parental protectiveness and confusion about how the technology worksis at the heart of the MySpace dilemma.
According to some, MySpace marks a societal revolution as monumental as the industrial revolution. After doing his research, media mogul Rupert Murdoch spent $580 million to purchase MySpace's parent company in 2005. He told a Reuters reporter, "MySpace demonstrated that the world has really changedthat the average person who is computer proficient is self-empowered in a way they never have [been] before."
It's this self-empowerment, however, coupled with youthful indiscretion, that has so many parents, such as Julie, concerned. And rightfully so.
In 2002, 15-year-old Katie Canton met 22-year-old John (last name withheld) in a live online chat room. Since he lived on the other side of the country, Katie felt free to flirt and send photos by e-mail. Soon John was sending Katie gifts, phone cards for long conversations, and numerous e-mails. "John told me, 'Age is just a number; love can be anywhere with anyone,'" Katie recalls. "He even told me he wanted to marry me, and I believed him. If my parents had tried to separate us at that point, it only would have added to the drama that made it exciting. I thought I was in love."
When John planned to fly cross-country to visit Katie in California, her parents consulted a friend in the San Francisco Police Department. By this point, there was no way to "talk sense" into Katie. So the friend gave the family a video game created by Web Wise Kids (www.wiredwithwisdom.org) called Missing. Katie's parents insisted she play the game that lets teens virtually experience tracking an online sex predator. Katie reluctantly saw for herself that her relationship with John fit a pattern well known by law enforcement personnel.
Katie turned over all the gifts, e-mails, letters, and computer files she'd exchanged with John to the San Francisco Police Department, which had discovered he was the primary suspect in the rape of a 13-year-old girl who'd also met him in a chat room. Katie testified at John's trial in West Virginia, where he was convicted and sent to prison for 20 years. Katie credits what she learned from Missing with sparing her more harm than she'd already experienced. And she now encourages kids to be savvy online surfers as an ambassador to youth for Web Wise Kids.
MySpace Is Not the Enemy
Stories like Katie's are troubling, but MySpace also has many positive applications. When my 15-year-old daughter, Haley, was planning a mission trip to Nigeria, she created a MySpace page to present her work and even set up a PayPal account so donations could go directly to the church from online donors. On her MySpace page she explained her burden for Africa, had "He Reigns" playing in the background, posted a countdown clock, and put up a photo travel log that could be accessed by the donors who made the trip possible.
My 18-year-old son, Taylor, has a public page to promote his original music. This has allowed him to bypass the need for a record label and get his music out to the world. He even has one fan in Australia. Besides, Grandma is confined to bed, but she can hear Taylor's music anytime from a laptop computer connected to the Internet.
The popularity of online social networking has also opened up fresh potential for connection and community between parents and teens. Since I created my own MySpace page, I've been added to the "friends" list of both of my teens, and several of my daughter's friends have invited me onto their lists. I now have access not only to my daughter's heart and mind but also to the kind of input she's getting from her closest friends. Occasionally, and respectfully, I offer advice, encouragement, kudos, or a verse of Scripture that these teens need to hear. Surprisingly, they respond with unabashed gratitude. I treasure the comment I found on my page recently when I sent Haley an e-mail on MySpace asking if she minded that I made comments on her blog. Who cares that they don't use proper grammar and punctuation when they're able to communicate a message like this: "I really liked your comment on my blog. way da be mom. I love you."
The Way Forward
MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam, a former prosecutor working on sex crimes against children, told the Wall Street Journal, "Our top priority right now is to find or build the right set of technologies that will make the Internet and MySpace safer for teens. But," he adds, "whatever technical solutions we implement can only be successful if they're coupled with a mom or a dad teaching their teens how to be safe online." That's where you come in.
As you help your child navigate these new technological waters safely, it's important that you recognize your power. Parents are the first and last line of defense against online predators. Here's some information to keep in mind.
It's all about customization. The MySpace experience depends on how a user customizes her profile. Account settings can be adjusted to "private" to make the homepageor certain components of the page, like the blogaccessible only to certain people. The people included on one's "friends" list also affect the MySpace experience, as those people's pages and comments are easily accessible.
Be a "friend." Join whatever social networking site your teen uses and become one of her "friends." This gives you access to your teen's social network, where you can get to know many of her peers and learn about struggles going on within her group. You also can see your teen's friends and read what they're thinking and doing. This can help you to better understand your teen and help her navigate life well.
If you're not on your teen's "friends" list, you can still be involved. You can join MySpace for free and easily find some of your teen's real-world friends by searching for members who attend his school. Bear in mind, though, it's best to maintain open communication with your child. Cyber-sleuthing can get you information, but if it's done in secret, it can shut down trust, which is counterproductive.
Your teen is your best source of information about MySpace. Ask for a guided tour of some of his friends' MySpace pages. Ask if your youth pastor has a page. Talk to your teen about your concerns about online social networking, but also listen. Being open with your concerns about MySpace can lead to important life discussions, and your teen's desire to participate can motivate him to talk.
"MySpace is less of a mystery now, and Piper and I are ready to start this new cyber adventure together," says Piper's mom, Julie. "MySpace isn't going away, so it's good that we have tools to help us understand it and use it wisely."
Become part of the solution. Predators aren't the only ones who can browse personal profiles on MySpace; protectors can too! MySpace needs moms to report inappropriate content to help clean up the MySpace neighborhood (do this by clicking "Report Inappropriate Content" at the bottom of any page).
Ephesians 5:15 teaches, "Be very careful, then, how you livenot as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil." Anyone browsing MySpace will quickly confirm that the days are evil! But these days also present a golden opportunity to make our world a safer place and let the light of Jesus Christ shine. What might happen if women who read TCW put as much energy into making MySpace safe for the teens we love as predators put into their perverted pursuits? That's something to pray about!
Connie Neal is the author of MySpace for Moms and Dads (Zondervan, available March 2007). She lives in California.
MySpace for Moms and Dads
A Guide to Understanding the Risks and the Rewards
You can't ignore MySpace if you're a parentbut you don't have to be intimidated by it. This simple, step-by-step exploration of what MySpace means in your teen's life helps even computer-challenged parents and grandparents understand this communication revolution and make informed, confident decisions about their teen's use of MySpace.
Click here to order your copy now.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.