You're 15: Who's Watching You Online?

GENERIC: Computer Privacy, Piracy, Crime, Online, Monitor
By producer Christine Lagorio.

Sue Balz-Verzal, a Wisconsin mother of two, logs onto popular social-networking site Xanga every day. Naperville, Ill., police detective Rich Wistocki tools around MySpace during work hours, as does MIT professor Henry Jenkins. These adults don't browse social-networking sites to message friends or post blogs. They log on to watch.

Also lurking online is a small army of predators hoping to connect with young men and women.

Teenagers dominate social-networking sites such as MySpace or Xanga. In adopting the new communication medium as their own, they generally assume their peers are their audience. But while teens design profiles on these sites with their friends in mind, a wave of monitors — most notably parents, predators, and police — is following their tracks.

Want to comment on this story? Want to see what other readers think?Click here.

Balz-Verzal, 49, checks out all of her 14-year-old daughter's Xanga photos and messages, while Wistocki trolls local teens' sites for signs of criminal activity. Jenkins, a communications scholar who has written extensively about technology, is simply interested. He called MySpace "the most-watched teen hangout in the history of the planet." While MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe has said "MySpace is not a police state," it is a public space in which members have a decided lack of privacy.

"It's not a private diary that a kid can keep locked up," said Parry Aftab, Internet-safety educator and director of (Aftab's charity takes donations from social-networking sites, including MySpace.) "Whatever they put online is on a billboard on a superhighway."

Much like a well-stocked iPod or an extensive DVD collection, having a pimped-out presence on the "superhighway" can be a status symbol. A MySpace profile full of edgy pictures, intriguing details and scores of friends is a desirable dose of social capital.

"MySpace is a cultural requirement for American high school students. Or, as one teenager said, "If you're not on MySpace, you don't exist,'" wrote University of California-Berkeley doctoral student Danah Boyd in a paper published by MIT last month.

More than 40 million MySpace users — about half of its total members — log more than an hour on the site weekly; 20 million visit Xanga regularly. For college students, Facebook is becoming the choice social-networking site — more than 85 percent of students participate if their campus offers membership. Some high schools have begun offering Facebook logins as well, liking its exclusivity to the scholastic community. As Facebook tends to serve older teens, Xanga is popular with tweens.

Balz-Verzal said her 14-year-old is already planning on making the switch from Xanga to MySpace in a year or two: "It's like learning to drive now; it's a rite of passage."

Check out statistics about teens and their online habits compiled by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Experts and scholars tell that because so much teenage culture today is conducted in a very public online theater, adults are newly privy to aspects — to phrase it classically: the sex, drugs and rock and roll — that previous generations might have kept away from adults' gaze. But it's not just parents who are becoming enlightened about teen culture.

School teachers, employers and college-admissions officers are logging on to learn about teens' evening and weekend social habits. Although Internet networking is associated with lightning-quick access and change, social sites like MySpace can cache pages, making a teen's profile available for years, and possibly even decades, to come.

"Usually, teens have a chance to experiment socially," Jenkins said. "We used to worry about what teachers or counselors put in your 'permanent record.' Now what you put on MySpace is on your permanent record."

What's wrong with all of this, 18-year-old David Mazzuca of Queens, N.Y., said, is that a visitor to MySpace or Xanga might glean more information about a teen than would be apparent after having a lengthy face-to-face conversation with him or her.

Pictures posted by teenage girls in particular are "not something anyone would ever want even their friends or anyone to see in person — but on the Internet, it's just fine," he said.

Boyd sees this tendency as self-exploration, albeit in a wide-open space.

"These sites play a key role in youth culture because they give youth a space to hang out amongst friends and peers, share cultural artifacts (like links to funny Web sites, comments about TV shows) and work out an image of how they see themselves," she wrote.

But with lascivious images and the self-confirming rush of adding new friends or receiving friends' messages, social-networking is exploding, and both its benefits and its dangers are just becoming known.

"It's like sex in the 60's: No one is going to abstain from the Internet. But here, there is no condom," said cyber-security consultant Tom Kellermann.


In February 2006, a deluge of news stories told a handful of horrifying tales of investigations into murders and sexual abuse stemming from online predators' MySpace connections to teenagers.

As many as seven girls from Middletown, Conn., were assaulted by men they met on MySpace who lied about their ages, police said. The girls were between the ages of 12 and 16 and authorities said the men who touched or had sex with them falsely claimed to also be teenagers.

Two unsolved murder investigations also involve MySpace: the case of 15-year-old Kayla Reed, whose body was found in a canal near her Livermore, Calif., home; and the case of Judy Cajuste, a Haitian 14-year-old from Roselle, N.J.

Cajuste's body was found in a park dumpster, badly bloated and possibly disfigured, according to sources close to her family. Her body was assumed to be that of an adult, so Judy's single mother was not notified for more than a week.

The Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported 2,660 incidents of adults using the Internet to entice children into meeting in 2005. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in April that one in every five children who go online is solicited, and that at any given time 50,000 predators are online trolling for youth contact ( read transcript).

The Justice Department is set to spend more than $14 million this year on a national network of task forces working to catch Internet predators. But doing so is "like shooting a fish in a barrel — I could come have a pedophile meet me anytime, anywhere," Wistocki said.

By the time of Judy and Kayla's murders, The NBC show "Dateline" was running a popular series called "To Catch A Predator," and many parents' eyes were opened to the potential dangers of social networking.


When Balz-Verzal's daughter wanted to get a Xanga account, both mother and daughter were aware of the possible dangers.

One aspect that worries her? "Predictability. They say 'I'm in school, I'm going bowling one night, I'm going to the movies one night.' They give their name, they give out their birth date and their likes or dislikes," Balz-Verzal said. "Kids are giving out way too much information online."