Is MySpace Safe?

Do a quick search of Google News for “MySpace sexual assault” and these are some of the headlines you’ll see:

No wonder many people, especially parents, shudder and the mention of MySpace.  Critics loudly denounce MySpace saying, “It’s a feeding ground for pedophiles!”  “Kids post suggestive photos of themselves.”  “It’s a forum for all sorts of vulgar expression.”  Yet a recent survey found that 61% of American 13-17 year olds have a MySpace profile.  Is MySpace safe for teens? For adults?

The short answer is no.

The critics claims are accurate.  There are predators that browse MySpace looking for young girls (and boys) to exploit.  While MySpace has a strict policy against nudity, some teens do post suggestive photos of themselves.  Some people do post vulgar and profane comments and blog articles.

But the fact of the matter is that nothing in this world is 100% safe.  Reports of teachers sexually exploiting children are in the news on a regular basis.  Go to your local mall and you may see teens that are wearing clothes that make Paris Hilton look modest. Hang out in any high school locker room and you’re likely to hear conversations that would draw heavy fines if broadcast in prime time.

From what I’ve seen, MySpace is not some new harbinger of evil.  Sexual predators, amoral people, and teens gone wild didn’t appear on MySpace out of nowhere.  MySpace is simply an online expression of the world we live in – the good and the bad.

The question is not whether MySpace is safe because nothing is.  The real issue is whether MySpace can be used safely or whether the risk is too great and we ought to stay away from MySpace altogether.

Safety Tips for Parents
At the bottom of every page on MySpace is a link to their Safety Tips.  While their tips are useful, I really don’t think they are comprehensive or go far enough.  Jonathan McKee, the president of The Source for Youth Ministry, wrote a fantastic article about MySpace which includes some great tips for parents.  It’s long but well worth the read.  Many of the tips below are based on suggestions in that article.

  • If your kids are under 14, just block the site.  Even MySpace doesn’t allow users under 14. If you allow your 12 year old to create a MySpace profile, you’re allowing your 12 year old to lie.
  • Strongly consider requiring full access.  Have your child give you their username and password so you can login and read their private emails, block users, activate privacy settings, and remove comments.  Parents of girls need to especially note this. It’s not an uncommon occurrence to receive “friend requests” from random guys of unknown age and origin. Even the most innocent kids will receive disturbing proposals from guys/men who saw their picture while browsing through the profiles of young girls.  Be totally up front about the fact that you will be doing this rather than secretly snooping around their account, so that if any issues should arise that you have to address they won’t be shocked and accuse you of violating their privacy.
  • At the very least, require your child add you as a friend.  If your kid is 17 or 18 years old and they’ve demonstrated good judgment and discernment in the past, you may decide not to require full access which would mean you would not be able to login and read their private messages.  But as a “friend” you will still be able to see their blog, pictures, comments, and the other friends they’ve added. 
  • Some parents might want to only allow their kids to use it with a parent in the same room.
  • Select the [Account Setting - Privacy Setting] option called the “My Friends Only” setting. This way, only MySpace friends (the user chooses who his or her MySpace friends are) can view their full profile, pictures, and blog. The default setting is where anyone can see your profile. In other words, any naked 40-year-old man can examine your kid’s pictures, comments and complete profile. If you activate the privacy setting however, they have to send an “Add a Friend” request, which must be approved by the user.
  • Activate the “Approve Comments before Posting” setting keeps others from posting anything on the user’s own page without his or her approval. You can also check “Friend Only Blog Comments” so that only friends can make comments in the first place.
  • Explain to your child that they are not to approve any Friend Requests from people they do not know.  This is HUGE!  People can claim to be anyone they want to be on MySpace.  A person’s profile might say she’s a 17 year old girl from Australia looking for a pen pal but could be a 30 year old guy from across town with a criminal record.  Once someone is approved as a friend, they can see your child’s profile, blog, pictures, and so on.
  • Don’t allow unsupervised browsing. The “browse” feature on MySpace is where people can really wander into racy areas. Browsing is when you do a search for other people who you want to meet, or to just gawk at their pictures and profile anonymously. You type in the zip code (if any), age range, gender, status (single, married, divorced…), and what you’re looking for (dating, networking, friends, or relationships). Then click “Update.” This will bring up a list of thumbnail pics for you to look at.  If kids select their schools, however, then they can browse for kids closer to their own age. MySpace will then offer a more customized “school” search for ages as low as 16 currently. These 16-year-old profiles are usually less trashy. Rule of thumb: the lower the age, the less chance of hitting risqué pictures.
  • Peek in on your kids and their friends. Kids are so brutally honest on MySpace that they say more than they realize. MySpace allows you to be a fly on the wall to 90% of the conversation kids are having-kids post vulnerable stuff in their blogs and comments. They save some conversation for the private messages, but if parents have their kid’s password, they can access that as well.
  • Don’t overreact.  These articles have highlighted many of the dangers of MySpace and may scare us. The worse thing a parent can do is at the first hint of danger or impropriety impulsively go in, unplug the computer and tell their kid, “This computer is THE DEVIL!!!” These actions will just confirm in our kids’ minds that we are old, “out of touch,” and we “don’t understand.” The fact is we DO understand, so we shouldn’t overreact and lose all credibility with our kids.

If your teenager keeps their profile private so only friends can view it and if they only add friends who they know, then they will be safe from predators.  If you regularly check out your kid’s blog, photos, comments, and friends you will know what’s going on with them and their friends.  If your child or their friends do act inappropriately, it may also give you the opportunity to discuss what is appropriate and why from the Biblical perspective.  It may not feel like an “opportunity” at the time – it may be awkward and your teen may not agree with what you say – but these are character-shaping moments.

Remember, our goal as parents is to prepare and train up our kids to become independent adults.  If your kids are old enough to be on MySpace, they are only a few short years (or less) from being completely on their own.  If we don’t gradually help them to understand and deal with the dangers and temptations that await them in the “real world,” we will leave them unprepared and vulnerable to it when they’re on their own.

Christian Alternatives
Ultimately, though each parent has to prayerfully consider whether their teen is mature enough to follow the rules they’ve laid out, behave appropriately, and avoid the temptations.  Some parents may decide it’s just not worth the risk.  For them there are Christian alternatives to MySpace with tighter restrictions and presumably fewer dangers.  Here’s a list of some of them.

To me the issue of whether to allow your teenager to be on MySpace or limit them to Christian alternatives is similar to the issue of choosing a public or a private Christian school.  On the one hand you may succeed in limiting their exposure to some worldly influences and give them some additional Christian influences, but you also limit their experience dealing with the world as well as their influence on a world that so desperately needs more Christian youth engaged in it.

Conclusion
If the guidelines explained above are followed, I think most teens can use MySpace safely.  However, that’s a decision best left for the parents who know and understand their kid’s judgment and maturity.

For adults, MySpace doesn’t appear any more dangerous than the Internet at large.  Sure there are temptations and people who will try to trip you up in sin, but if you want to avoid them you can.  MySpace does offer some tremendous ways for individuals and organizations to reach out to and develop relationships with people we otherwise might never meet and we’ll touch on some of those next week.

Do you agree or disagree that MySpace can be safe if you follow the tips in this article?  Parents, what if anything are you doing to protect your kids on MySpace?  Got any other tips for using MySpace safely?  Post your comments below.

Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, elder of CypressMeadows.org, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

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