As reported in the Weekly Feb. 8 (available via www.PaloAltoOnline.com), the Council of PTAs is hosting community meetings to alert parents to the real dangers involved in unregulated and unsupervised use of the MySpace site by young persons down to age 14, at least.
A second meeting — focusing more on what parents can do to protect their children and what young persons can do to protect themselves and their friends — is being scheduled for April.
"Kids are putting stuff up on MySpace like it's a diary," PTA Council President Melissa Baton-Caswell told parents at the first such meeting in early February.
"The majority of parents don't even know about it," she said.
A check of local MySpace entries by Weekly Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha turned up highly personal, detailed information about some photos of students partying and holding beer cups, and a photo of a Gunn High School student bending over in a mini-skirt, describing herself in accompanying text as a "swinger."
Nationally, television celebrity Oprah Winfrey has launched a crusade to call attention to the dangers of such postings, following the Dec. 19 publishing of an investigative story in the New York Times about a young boy drawn into prostitution via MySpace "grooming" contacts (flattery, gifts, friendship).
The core concern is that sexual predators are using the site as if it were an online shopping mall — an Amazon.com of vulnerable young persons potentially available for grooming, abusing or worse.
The dangers are very real, sometimes fatal. Police discovered that 15-year-old Kayla Reed of Livermore, whose body was found in a canal six weeks after she disappeared, last accessed her MySpace account Dec. 2, the day before she went missing. Middleton, Conn., police are investigating seven sexual-assault cases in which the victims were contacted via MySpace.
Palo Alto parent Larry Magid, an expert on the societal impacts of computer and Internet use, says MySpace and similar self-publishing Web sites are indeed dangerous, particularly when combined with digital photography and live computer cams (perhaps fueled by alcohol). He has created a Web site, www.blogsafety.com, to counsel parents and teens about Internet safety.
Even setting aside predator concerns, Magid warns that material posted on the Internet leaves permanent tracks that could come back to haunt, embarrass or hurt young persons later in life — perhaps with college or job prospects or in personal relationships. What might a future prospective spouse, or spouse's family, or someone's children think in 15 or 20 years, for instance?
But Magid appropriately warns that parents should not over-react to MySpace and other Internet usage by young persons, such as instant messaging, blogs (Web logs) and chat rooms. There are many valuable aspects of having open Internet access, scholastically and, when appropriately used, personally.
Concern about sex and the Internet is as old as the Internet itself — and in fact was the primary subject of most early news reports about the emerging phenomenon back in the 1980s and early 1990s. Anyone who has tried to cull spam from incoming e-mail knows the kind of sex-related virtual junk that comes across unless special protective steps are taken to screen it out.
One protective step many early bulletin board services (BBSs) took was to create moderated or "hosted" conferences that required participants to register by name, sometimes by invitation. That could be an effective approach at the school level, allowing students to communicate among themselves while keeping outsiders at bay.
Both Palo Alto high schools have group accounts on MySpace: Palo Alto High has 554 members and Gunn High has 461 members. JLS and Terman middle schools also have accounts, with 156 members and 72 members respectively as of early February.
How well those are monitored by school officials, parents and teens themselves will in large measure determine how safe they are for teens to use.