Just how dangerous is MySpace?

Schools and parents struggle with the MySpace phenomenon in trying to decide how to punish kids who abuse others online, whether allowing access exposes kids to danger, and whether to block access entirely.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor

Wired News offer "scenes from the MySpace backlash," starting with the story of young Justin Layshock, who created a fake MySpace profile of his principal, Eric Trosch of Hermitage (Pa.) Hickory High School.

For "birthday" he listed "too drunk to remember." And for vital stats like eye and hair color he wrote, simply, "big" -- a poke at the educator's girth that he managed to weave into most of the 60-odd survey questions in Trosch's fictional profile: Do you smoke? "Big cigs." Do you swear? "Big words." Thoughts first waking up? "Too … damn … big."

He told some friends, word spread, soon the whole school was laughing at poor Principal Trosch. He was suspended, his parents grounded him. But that was not all.

Layshock was suspended for 10 days, then transferred into an alternative education program for students incapable of functioning in a regular classroom.

A gifted learner who had been enrolled in advanced-placement classes and tutored other kids in French, Layshock spent the next month in a scaled-down three-hour-a-day program where a typical assignment saw students building a tower out of paper clips as a lesson in teamwork. The punishment led to an ACLU lawsuit that is ongoing, and garnered the school district a slew of critical stories in the local papers.

 An extreme reaction, perhaps, but schools and parents are getting extremely worried about MySpace. The worry comes in two flavors, what kids are posting (as in the above photo from a MySpace profile), and who's seeing what they're posting.

This month, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced a criminal probe into the service's practices, after reports that as many as seven underage girls in one region of the state were fondled or had consensual sex with adult men they'd met through the site, and who had lied about their age. In a press release, Blumenthal called MySpace "a parent's worst nightmare."

In a rash of similar sex abuse cases around the country, adult MySpace users are accused of preying on underage girls. This month, 26-year-old Nathan Contos of Santa Cruz, California, was arrested in charges of molesting a 14-year-old girl he met on MySpace while allegedly posing as a teenager himself. Jaime Freeman, a 22-year-old Bakersfield, California, man is facing similar charges after allegedly molesting three underage girls he met through MySpace. Last week, a 27-year-old Maine resident was sentenced to three years in prison for his relationship with a 14-year-old girl he met on the site. She claimed to be 19 in her MySpace profile but he continued to pursue the relationship even after learning her real age.

Pretty shocking. But, says Wired writer Kevin Poulsen, also overblown:

UC Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd (blog) has studied the MySpace phenomenon for two years, and she concludes teen users are generally more savvy than their parents and the media give them credit for.

"I ask if they ever get e-mails from older men, and they say, 'Yeah, I just delete them. They're gross,'" says Boyd. "There have been more articles on MySpace predators than there's been reported predators online. It's a hyped up fear, and it scares the shit out of parents."

Regardless, schools and school tech managers are faced with a real dilemma: Should they flat-out block the site, or does forbidding it just make it that much more intriguing and interesting? A couple viewpoints from the article:


  • "Some argue that it's educationally valid, others say they're seeing kids beat up over it," says David Trask, a junior high teacher and technology director at Vassalboro Community School in Maine. "In my view, it doesn't have much (educational) value." ... Trask is organizing a local "internet safety night" in early March that he hopes will be attended by 200 or more parents. He's inviting a police cyber-crime specialist to speak.

    A thoughtful educator who admits to mixed feelings about blocking the site, Trask says he has never tried to punish kids for their MySpace use -- he just wants parents to know about it. His junior high students are at the youngest end of MySpace's user base. "My goal is to let parents know, 'Guess what, this is out there. And your child may be on there.'"

  • [S]ome resourceful students are finding ways around the campus firewall, typically by routing their web surfing through internet proxy servers. When officials close one hole, the kids start looking for another. "They'll tell me straight up, 'Dude, that filter stinks, I went right around it,'" says [a] southern Oregon educator, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You do what you can."
  • "When someone says 'You can't', to an adolescent, that means, 'This must be cool,'" says Nick Fenger, a teacher and technologist at the small Trillium Charter School in Portland, Oregon. Fenger says the MySpace furor has generated a vigorous debate among his school's administration and faculty about how to respond. In his view, the site's popularity provides a "teachable moment" that could be used to guide safe internet habits, and even to improve student writing and grammar skills.

    "Maybe the MySpace medium is another channel where we can be working with our students," says Fenger. To that end, he's forming a student-teacher committee to explore positive uses of MySpace. "The reason I think a lot of schools don't go this way is it takes staff, it takes resources. It takes faculty time and it takes students' time."







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