MySpace Announces New Safety Measures to Protect Children from Online Predators

Is it enough for Myspace to stymie online predators simply by blocking children under the age of 14 from its Web site?

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia think so. 

Myspace, the top social networking Web site, announced January 14 that it reached an agreement with 49 states and the District of Columbia to increase its efforts to keep children safe from online predators and cyber bullies.

New measures include limiting site access to people who are at least 14 years old and making “private” settings mandatory for all profiles created by users under the age of 18.   Recognizing that kids can easily circumvent these restrictions by lying about their ages, Myspace also agreed to begin working on age-verification technology.  Another idea is to create a database where parents can register their children's email address in order to block them from the site. 

Texas refused to sign the agreement because it was too vague. USA Today reported that Greg Abbot, Texas attorney general, “welcomed Myspace's 'spirit of cooperation' but said networking sites won't adequately protect young users until they can verify ages.”

NBC News Correspondent Kerry Sanders illustrated the need for age-verification software by showing the ease with which underage children can access Myspace, even with the other new safety tools in place. 

Co-host Matt Lauer then discussed the changes with Perry Aftab, an Internet privacy and security attorney who also serves as the executive director of WiredSafety, an organization devoted to Internet safety.  Aftab clarified Myspace's new measures and also warned parents that they must communicate with their children about the dangers lurking online. 

Here's the transcript:

MATT LAUER: Perry Aftab is an internet privacy and security attorney. Perry, Good morning, nice to have you back here. We've heard some of the steps, you know the others taken in this deal with 49 states. Significant?


PERRY AFTAB, Internet privacy and security attorney: Well, it's a step. It's a process more than anything else. Everyone sitting in one room saying we're going to work on it, education, tools, putting the good brains together so it's a beginning.

LAUER: Let me take you through some of the steps that stood out when I read them. First of all, and I didn't understand this one so that's why I'm asking you, make the default setting private for 16 and 17-year-old users.

AFTAB: Well that also means kids who say they're 16 and 17. So when you create a Myspace, you have two choices -- everybody can see everything you post or only certain people that you pre-approve can see what's behind your front page.

LAUER: This way it'd be mandatory for 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to be on the private setting?

AFTAB: Private setting. You can undo it. But the kids have to say they're 16 and 17 instead of 47.

LAUER: Allow parents to submit children's email addresses to Myspace to prevent anyone from misusing the addresses to set up profiles.

AFTAB: I'm not sure that that's going to work. I'll talk to them about it. I'm always concerned about kids' e-mail addresses being shared in a database because I think someone can get to them.

LAUER: And here's the one that stands out to me most of all. Strengthen software to find underage users. They say that they're going to work on technology that will allow them to verify the age of users. How do they do that?

AFTAB: Well, I don't think it exists. But what they said is, if we can make it happen, we're going to make it happen. We're going to pull everybody into the room who knows everything about it. And if it can happen, we'll put our money and our brains behind it and have that happen.

LAUER: In realistic terms, Kerry Sanders in his piece, mentioned Megan Meiers, the young lady who went online, got involved with what she thought was a young boy who was interested, turns out it was a neighbor's mom. Could these new rules have prevented something like that from happening?

AFTAB: No, not the way they're written now. But the biggest problem we have is cyber bullying on these sites. And as you know Matt, Tina's going to be working with us on our Stop Cyber Bullying program but I'd love it if we could come up with technology to find that Lori Drew, the one who was masquerading as a 16-year-old, could be found out more easily.

Lauer: We're talking Myspace.  Are places like facebook going to follow suit in this deal with all of these states?

AFTAB: Well a lot of the social networks are looking at this trying to see if they can get onboard. Facebook is already doing an awful lot because of New York. All of them are working with us, Matt, at the charity I run, WiredSafety, to use best practices and pull it all together.

LAUER: Perry, as we talk about all the time on this show and you talk about more than anyone, if you're a parent, you've got to talk to your kids. Specifically, now that these new guidelines and these new rules are out, what do you need to say to your kids?

AFTAB: Well, first you've got to remember you're the parent. Put up your hand and say, I may not understand the technology but I can ground you if you don't listen. Then, Talk to them. Do you have a social networking profile, show it to me. I want to see it tomorrow. It gives them a day to clean it up and learn about Internet safety.

LAUER: When we're talking about younger children and, again, if you're under 14, you shouldn't be on Myspace anyway, but when you're talking about teenagers, how do you inform them without scaring the pants off of them?

AFTAB: Well, You can't scare the pants off of a teenager. They'll just stop listening to you. So what you say is, go on there and find your friends' profiles, see if you make them a little safer and make sure your friends aren't posting personal information about you.

LAUER: And you also think you should Google your kids' names.

AFTAB: Absolutely, not just their names but their cell numbers, your address, your regular telephone numbers because it's an early warning system of cyber bullying and it lets you know if the kids are putting too much information out there.

LAUER: So "A" to "F," grading this new deal with these 49 states. What do you give it?

AFTAB: I give it an A plus as a great start and we'll see what happens when they get going.

LAUER: I wish I had you as a teacher in school.  You're giving A pluses for a good start.  That's good.

AFTAB: I say anyone who sits down and says “Let's Try” is a good thing.

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center