MySpace.com is planning new restrictions on how adults may contact its younger users in response to growing concerns about the safety of teenagers who frequent the popular online social networking site.
The site already prohibits kids 13 and under from setting up accounts and displays only partial profiles for those registered as 14- or 15-years-old unless the person viewing the profile is already on the teen's list of friends.
Under the changes, announced Wednesday and taking effect next week, MySpace users who are 18 or over could no longer request to be on a 14- or 15-year-old's friends' list unless they already know either the youth's e-mail address or full name.
Any user will still be able to get a partial profile of younger users by searching for other attributes, such as display name. The difference is that currently, adults can then request to be added to a youth's list to view the full profile; that option will disappear for adults registered as 18 and over.
"Even with the new system, there are no restrictions on people who lie about their ages," says CBSNews.com Technology Analyst Larry Magid. "If an adult says they're 16, they can request to be a friend of a 14- or 15-year-old, Unfortunately they still don't have reliable age verification."
The partial profiles display gender, age and city. Full profiles describe hobbies, schools and any other personal details a user may provide.
But MySpace doesn't check the truth in the profiles.
"A 12-year-old who uses MySpace told me on Friday you can always tell if someone's older than they say they are because the first thing they ask you is your bra size," Parry Aftab, executive director of Wiredsafety.org, said on CBS News' The Early Show
Aftab told co-anchor Hannah Storm MySpace isn't making enough of an effort to protect children online.
"I'm holding a summit in White Plains, N.Y., today where everybody but MySpace is coming to sit down and figure out what the we can all do, Parents, Xanga, Facebook, Bebo, [other online sites catering to teens], all of the other sites are sitting in a room with regulators and the FTC and everyone else to see what we can do to keep kids safer," Aftab said.
Driven largely by word of mouth, MySpace has grown astronomically since its launch in January 2004 and is now second in the United States among all Web sites by total page views, behind only Yahoo Inc., according to comScore Media Metrix. The site currently has some 87 million users, about a quarter registered as minors, according to the company.
At MySpace, which was bought last year by News Corp. for $580 million, users can expand their circles of friends by exploiting existing connections, rather than meeting randomly or by keyword matches alone.
It offers a mix of features — message boards, games, Web journals — designed to keep its youth-oriented visitors clicking on its advertising-supported pages.
MySpace has recently become a target of parents, schools and law enforcement officials concerned that teens who hang out at MySpace can fall victim to sexual predators.
"MySpace has been under enormous pressure for months and the pressure is growing now thatwho was allegedly sexually assaulted by an adult who misrepresented his age," says Magid.
The girl, in the suit filed this week, is seeking $30 million in damages. And earlier this month, a 16-year-old girl who tricked her parents into getting her a passport flew to the Mideast to be with a 20-year-old man she met through MySpace. U.S. officials in Jordan persuaded the teen to turn around and go home.
MySpace officials say the new restrictions have been long planned and are unrelated to recent events.
Besides the contact restrictions, all users — not just those 14 and 15 — will have the option to make only partial profiles available to those not already on their friends list.
All users also will get an option to prevent contact from people outside their age group. Currently, they may only choose to require that a person know their e-mail or last name first; that will remain an option to those 16 and over, even as it becomes mandatory for those younger.
MySpace also will beef up its ad-targeting technology, so that it can avoid displaying gambling and other adult-themed sites on minors' profile pages and target special public-service announcements to them.
The changes follow a number of safety-related measures that includes the hiring of a former federal prosecutor and Microsoft Corp. executive as its online safety chief. MySpace already has developed safety tips for parents and children and devotes scores of employees to monitoring the site around the clock.
Children's safety online shouldn't be left solely to services like MySpace, says Aftab, whoon The Early Show.
"Parents have to be involved. Ask their kids if they have a MySpace or other social networking page, tell them you want to look at it tomorrow, giving them a chance to clean it up," Aftab told Storm Wednesday. "If your kids aren't listening to you, and you've set rules that you like, it's time to unplug the computer."
"I need somebody to be the parent in the house."