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Social media sites instituted new privacy measures in June to enhance the safety and security of a site. Now, a new feature lets users of any age choose to make their profiles private, so that only friends within their network have access to their personal dossier. In addition, no one over the age of 18 can access a 14- or 15-year-old's profile without knowing the user's full name or E-mail address. Since age verification is impossible, however, these age-based rules are easy to skirt, and many people routinely lie about their age. In fact, social media sites delete 25,000 profiles weekly of users who don't meet the site's 14-year-old minimum age requirement, says Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for the site. The penalty for violators is severe. "We delete them," he says. The profiles aren't the only things that go: Anything posted on other pages disappears as well. Nigam acknowledges the age-based system isn't perfect. "We have considered other ways to set the system up so it is not just about age."
Contrary to parents' perception that their children are easy prey for unscrupulous adults, many kids are just as wary of strangers as their parents or just plain uninterested in meeting them. Zeitlin says he and most of his friends claim to be 14 online. "I do it so people who aren't my friends can't see my profile," he says. "I wouldn't really trust someone online to introduce me to interesting or non-weird people."
According to a new study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 7 young people ages 10 to 17 acknowledged receiving an online sexual solicitation in 2005. Five years ago, when the survey was first done, the number was higher: 1 in 5. (Online solicitation is defined as a request to engage in sexual activities or talk or give personal sexual information, from any Internet-based communication.) About 4 percent received "aggressive" solicitations, in which the person wanted to make contact offline, a number that didn't decline from the previous survey.
Dangerous ground. Parents need to be on the lookout, experts say, for unfamiliar friends who contact their children online out of the blue, as well as risky behavior on the part of kids themselves that makes them targets for predators. Too often teens post erotic photos in which they pose suggestively and expose plenty of skin, using screen names like "nasty" or "sexygirl." In their personal description, they may say they're wild or curious about having sex with a stranger. To kids, this may seem like harmless posturing. Parents can help them understand when they're on dangerous ground. "Parents need to talk about certain lines you don't cross," says Magid. "There's a difference between language that's edgy and obscene or profane, and a difference between being sexy and being sexual or slutty."
Some experts worry that while parents focus on sexual predators, however, they miss other ways in which the Internet may be negatively affecting their kids' sexual development. As parents have noticed to their dismay, many kids post very sexualized images of themselves in swimsuits or their underwear. Social media says it has several staffers who eyeball each of the 3 million images that are posted every day, searching for-and removing-nudity, hate speech or symbols, and offensive content. But photos that are merely provocative aren't forbidden. And with virtually no supervision or monitoring of conversations online, casual banter and egging each other on about sex through online posts and instant messages ("I heard Carmen and Dave hooked up at a party." Response: "No, but he wants to!!!") set the stage for sexual experimentation once kids meet face to face. "Developmentally, the envelope has always been pushed during adolescence," says Sharon Maxwell, a clinical psychologist in Canton, Mass., who specializes in teen sexuality, "but never without any rules. And now it all happens more quickly." This speeding up of sexual development is most pronounced among middle schoolers, Maxwell says.
Just as social-networking sites and Internet communications can accelerate and amplify adolescents' normal sexual explorations, they can do the same with another time-honored teenage tradition: bullying. The old sticks-and-stones nursery rhyme seems quaint now that there's a virtual bathroom wall where kids put all manner of words and images to nasty effect. They may post an unflattering bogus profile claiming a schoolmate is an out-of-control drunk or drug user, with a picture of him passed out at a party, for example, or send scathing text messages among groups of friends when one girl dates someone a friend higher up in the social pecking order is interested in. Dozens of her friends may weigh in-"You're such a whore." "I can't believe you're such a slut."-with instant messages. "Online bullying is more vicious and damaging because it's wider spread," says Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use in Eugene, Ore., an education and outreach organization. "More people have access to the communication, and there's the ability to combine damaging images."
The Internet also allows kids to impersonate one another, something that's nearly impossible to do in a school hallway. Last year, five schoolmates at a St. Louis high school decided to post a "hot/not hot" list of more than 100 female classmates, with racist and sexist comments, on Facebook. They signed the name of a 17-year-old junior, who learned of the list only when one of the girls asked him about it. "He was mortified," says Nancy, the boy's mother, who asked to use her first name only. "It was incredibly upsetting, and we were absolutely powerless."
Affirmation. As parents of teenagers are well aware, adolescence is an intensely social time, and now teens can be connected with their peers night and day. Psychologists and Internet experts say they are seeing a growing number of kids who are addicted to being online. Kids who are socially anxious or insecure may be particularly vulnerable, says Willard. Having tons of online friends and being in constant contact through text messaging or cellphones reinforce a feeling of acceptance. But these teens may come to need that hit of affirmation in the brick-and-mortar world to feel OK, she says. Setting limits on the amount of time children can spend online is one obvious strategy, but it's also critical for parents to emphasize the importance of having a balance of interests and activities. This only works, however, if parents themselves have balanced lives and aren't online all the time.
Still, social networking can also be a good thing for some teenagers. "A shy kid who has a terribly hard time expressing himself one-on-one may be much more comfortable conversing online," says Maxwell. Likewise, teens facing difficult issues-gay teens who don't feel comfortable coming out to their parents, for example-can get support online from others in the same situation.
Despite the hand-wringing that teens are spending too many hours online, not every kid is clamoring for a social media profile. Elisabeth Moore, a 14-year-old in Stockton Springs, Maine, checked out the site a few months ago and decided not to go back. "It seemed kind of pointless," says Moore, "seeing all these people who don't have much to do except go on the computer. You have your friends in real life; you might as well stick to them."
Common sense. Regular social media users, however, can get caught up in sharing their daily dramas and escapades-so engrossed that they sometimes forget the whole world may be watching. There have been many news reports of police nabbing teens who bragged about or posted pictures of their illegal exploits online. Teens in Novato, Calif., for example, got arrested when they posted a video of themselves firebombing an abandoned airplane hangar last spring. More commonplace, however, are photos and postings detailing underage drinking or pot smoking that could conceivably hurt teens' chances when they apply to college or look for a job down the road.
Many middle schools and high schools currently block social-networking sites on school computers. The Fenn School, a private school in Concord, Mass., for fourth-to-ninth-grade boys, is one of them. School administrators decided that any technology used in the school should serve educational purposes, and social media and similar sites don't meet that standard, says Rob Gustavson, the assistant headmaster. At the same time, school administrators believe they have a responsibility to help students develop common sense about their use of technology. One of the segments in the "student life"course, in fact, covers using technology wisely. "We want them to be able to make these judgments when they get outside," says Gustavson. The Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, which passed the House of Representatives in July, would make blocking of these sites at public schools and libraries mandatory. Although the law's intention is to protect minors from sexual solicitations or suggestive material, many experts believe it is written too broadly and will obstruct many useful sites. And they also argue that banning the sites from the very locations where there are adults present to monitor kids' online activities is a mistake. "If we lock these sites out of the schools, adults are turning their backs on kids and making them deal with these issues on their own," says Henry Jenkins, codirector of the comparative media studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Many experts note that with the proliferation of technology, banning social-networking sites either at school or at home is unlikely to be effective in any case. "The kid will just go underground," says Magid. "You can put a filter on a computer, but you can't prevent him from using it on his cellphone or another computer."
Michelle Alden says she's been tempted to ban social media from her house many times. The 40-year-old teacher's aide in Idaho City, Idaho, says she is uncomfortable with the site's profile format, as it encourages youngsters to present themselves as if they're looking for sex. Why, she wonders, does the site ask kids to describe their body type and sexual orientation? But instead of trying to forbid the site, she's opted to set guidelines and talk regularly with her 15-year-old daughter about her page, which she uses primarily to stay in touch with friends. "I think it's better to go ahead and have the struggle, because soon enough she's going to be out on her own," she says, "and I only have a few more years to have those conversations with her."
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