Like millions of other American parents, I have a child with a MySpace page. Although my son Alex isn't old enough yet to have a page (kids are required to be at least 14; Alex will be 13 in a few weeks), he asked me first if he could age himself in order to join. After checking it out, I said yes.
And I'm still 100% comfortable with that decision, even though you can't turn around without reading yet another tabloid tale about what a dangerous underword MySpace is, chock full of predators looking for young children to seduce. Or articles bemoaning the way kids use MySpace, whether the concerns are language, rude behavior, or other vulgarities.
Do I think that kids are naive about the dangers of revealing too much information about themselves online? Absolutely. Do I believe that some of the restrictions MySpace is now putting in are good ones? Of course. But the problems that exist on MySpace aren't new - and blaming or restricting the medium (or banning your own kids from MySpace) won't make them go away. Blaming MySpace is like blaming Ford Motor Company when your 13-year-old grabs your keys, jumps behind the wheel, and crashes the car.
When I read the articles about the 14-year-old girl and her mother suing MySpace for 30 million dollars, my skin crawls - but not for the reason you might think. While I know this young girl will bear scars from the sexual assault she went through as a result of meeting someone online, I don't blame MySpace. I blame her attacker, I shake my head at the girl's naivete - and then I cast a critical eye at her mother instead. (Interestingly enough, her attacker is also suing MySpace, according to this Time Magazine article - the service should have prevented the under-14-year-old from initially registering, he claims.)
There are at least four ways that I've counted where the mother could have (or should have) put a stop to the sequence of events. First, the girl was emailing this guy for a month. Then, she voluntarily gave her cell phone number to the guy, and had numerous conversations with him. She then met this total stranger for a burger. And then she got into his car.
And here's why something like this would never happen to my own child. First, my son knows that computer access is a privilege, not a right. He has zero expectations of privacy - he knows that I have the ability to access his email and MySpace page at any time, and he needs to keep that access open to me. And he also knows that I can restrict access at any time, for any reason.
Secondly, my kid knows NEVER to give out personal information - cell phone, name, address information - to a stranger online (or in person, for that matter.) His friends on MySpace are all kids he knows already, from school or other activities. If someone he doesn't know contacts him, he knows to check with me, or to just delete the email unanswered.
Finally, I know where my kid goes, who he's going with, and where he's going. I know who he talks to on his cell phone. That's my job to keep my kid safe - not MySpace, or Cingular, or the local mall, for that matter.
See, we don't abdicate our responsibilities as parents when we choose to give our children access to technology. And if we're not going to proactively educate our children about their own responsibilities online, set rules and expectations about access & use, or reinforce (or adapt) the lessons we already teach our children about strangers, we can't hold anyone else accountable when something horrific happens.
Here's hoping a judge and jury see it that way as well.
Betsy is a 40-something single parent in Oregon with a daughter in elementary school and a son in middle school.