The heat is now officially on MySpace. They are being sued by parents who allege that their 14 and 15-year-old daughters were sexually assaulted by adults on MySpace. They are also being threatened by Attorney Generals from 33 states if the site can't demonstrate that it's safe for the minors who spend hours socializing there. In response, MySpace announced it will be offering an application they are calling Zephyr that parents can download to monitor when their teen is logging into MySpace from anywhere. Teens will know they're being tracked, and the program will only give parents access to profile changes (like age, city, state) and let them know that their teen has logged in. It won't show parents the actual profile.
I don't want to rip on MySpace for trying to do something in the face of what has become a moral panic, but the reality is that you could get that same information by just asking your teen. And, according to a 2005 Pew report, "parents who use Internet filtering software to police their children tend to be Internet users themselves, and that more moms (59 percent) report the use of filtering software than dads (49 percent)." I'm convinced that in addition to parents who just don't believe filters are that effective or are too invasive, there are also a lot of parents who would not know what software to buy or how to install it. I'm also convinced these same parents won't know how to download and use Zephyr.
But it's not just whether or not parents are tech savvy enough to use technology to monitor their teen's MySpace activity. I just don't see how downloading any application can replace having multiple conversations with your teen about Internet safety, privacy and online etiquette.
Talking to teenagers can be tough. They can be moody, appear uninterested or distracted (even answer a text message in the middle of your conversation) and they often like to act as if they know everything. They might look at you like you're crazy, roll their eyes and just say in that exaggerated tone, "Yeah. I know." If you're a parent, you can't be deterred by typical teenage behavior. I honestly believe that even though teens will display these outward signs of resistance -- they want and need you to talk to them.
MySpace is a virtual public space inhabited by teens and adults. Just like the mall or a park or a city square is a real public space. The Internet does make it easier for predators to appear less creepy -- they can pose as teens and cajole and manipulate in ways that your typical predator couldn't do face-to-face (unless it's someone they know, like a parent or family member, which is more often the case). This means parents have to be extra vigilant about helping teens set up the right privacy settings on their accounts and have a healthy suspicion of anyone they don't know who approaches them on MySpace. Parents have to drive home the dangers of teens using the Internet to flirt with anyone they don't know (whether they're teens, adults, or adults posing as teens). And then, after you have done all of that, just as you do when you let your teen go to the mall or the movies with their friends, you have to take a deep breath and trust that they will do the right thing.
Software isn't going to do this for you. And while I understand the anger these families have over what may have happened to their daughters, I don't think a lawsuit is going to solve the underlying problem of why these girls decided it was ok to meet a guy in person they had only interacted with online. I'm not anti-filtering for younger kids and teens, just as I support parents who keep the computer in a central location for this same age group. I just believe that technology can't replace talking.