Schools Cracking Down On teen Web Site MySpace
By Jason Szep
BOSTON — Is it a virtual hangout for millions of American teenagers, like a sprawling electronic shopping plaza, or a magnet for sexual predators and pornographers?
MySpace.com is a bit of both, say Rhode Island education officials who have banned the fast-growing teen social networking Web site from 80 percent of their schools out of concern is was putting children at risk.
“There’s a lot of personal information and things like that on MySpace.com — a bit more than I’m comfortable with,” said James Murphy, assistant director of technology for the public schools in Coventry, Rhode Island.
The Rhode Island Network for Educational Technology, a nonprofit that handles Internet networks for the state’s 36 public school districts, said 80 percent of the schools had requested an Internet filter to screen out MySpace.com.
A blizzard of news headlines in national media have raised alarm with parents and school authorities — from “Man arrested in MySpace.com teen-sex case” to “Sex predators are stalking MySpace; is your teenager a target?” and “Space Invaders.”
School districts in Florida and several other states and private universities have also installed filters on their Internet networks that block the site, which media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp bought for $580 million in July.
MySpace.com, which boasts 56 million members, allows teenagers and young adults to find friends and express themselves by posting profiles and blogs, or Web journals covering everything from their favorite singers to schoolwork and their sexual preferences and other intimate details.
In Connecticut, which borders Rhode Island, the state’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, is investigating a number of sexual assaults with links to MySpace.
Authorities in Santa Cruz, California, arrested a 26-year-old in February for felony child molestation after he met a 14-year-old on MySpace. In other cases, MySpace.com has been used to threaten classmates.
“What could have been probably an innocent place for kids to meet has turned almost to be everybody’s nightmare,” said Monique Nelson, executive director of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit Internet safety organization based in California.
“I’m glad to see Rhode Island taking a stand. It’s unfortunate because I don’t think the Web site was obviously originally designed to have things like this happen,” she said.
Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department if Education, said each school district can decide for itself whether to filter out MySpace.com or other web sites that have adult or inappropriate content for children.
The Rhode Island ban affects about 130,000 students while they are using computers at school. But students were always one step ahead and finding new ways to use the Internet or surfing sites like MySpace.com from home, Murphy said.
“There is no filtering service that is going to be foolproof,” he said. “We try to keep on top of this and stay ahead but it’s a challenge.”
Pam Christman, director of technology programs and network services at the Rhode Island Network for Educational Technology, said about 40 percent of the state’s schools had also sought bans on a long list of Web blogging sites.
MySpace has said that its users have to be at least 14 years old and are required to fill out an online form that includes their date of birth.