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

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.

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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."

Balz-Verzal makes sure her daughter doesn't divulge too many personal details, but that's not the case with many parents. There's a generation gap when it comes to online know-how according to Aftab, who has taught hundreds of parents the intricacies of teenage social networking.

"Even if a parent uses computers and the Internet, they have no idea how kids do … a parent is likely to be alienated from a teen's Internet use, no matter how in touch they are," she said.

Other factors can exacerbate the disconnect. Language barriers can separate parents from children in immigrant families. Parents too poor to have a computer in their home have no way of monitoring children who go online at school.

In Cajuste's case, her mother — a Haitian immigrant — worked several jobs, said Roselle, N.J., school board president Yves Aubourg. As a result, Judy was often cared for by her grandparents, who speak very little English.

Another consideration is the sheer size and scope of the Internet. Surfing the Web and chatting online can't be compared to a teen activity familiar to many parents — going to the mall with friends.

"In a mall there are a couple hundred people. On the Internet there are millions," said Rob Nickel, a veteran of the provincial police force in Ontario, Canada. Nickel specialized in undercover work catching predators online and now lectures parents on Internet safety. "We street-proof our kids, but on the Internet they don't know the consequences," he said.

Catherine Saintilien, a community-center organizer in New Jersey who is acquainted with the Cajustes, said the lack of neutral or kid-friendly public spaces push younger teens to their desktops.

"In the summer months, for more than 10 hours they might be in the house by themselves if they don't have a place to go, and it is very tempting to go online," she said. "There is no place that's safe for our kids anymore."

But experts say it is natural for the new technology of one generation to become the focus of adult anxieties.

"Social networking is just the latest in a slew of technologies, going back to radio, that shocks one generation and is taken for granted by the next," Jenkins, an MIT professor, says.


Parents and schools fear what they don't understand in the case of tech-savvy teens — especially when violent crimes or illegal activity can be tracked back to a teenager's computer. Patrolling MySpace and chat rooms has become commonplace for detectives and school liaison officers — and MySpace is helping them make busts.

In April, Kansas police discovered and thwarted a plot for a Columbine-style school shooting involving five boys, after seeing a MySpace posting citing the planned violence. It was at least the fourth Columbine-style plot this year revealed through MySpace or Xanga, according to the Boston Globe.

In the same month, a 15-year-old New Jersey girl was charged with harassment when authorities found what they called a hit list of 17 people, mostly peers, on her Web site.

"A big part of my caseload is juveniles who are committing crimes against their friends," said Wistocki.

Kellermann says 500 agents work primarily on cyber crime. With the FTC saying that 10 million Americans' identities have been stolen, the recent boost in federal resources makes sense.

MySpace has also stepped into the crime-fighting arena by helping investigators to uncover users' identities. In April, MySpace announced the hire of former federal prosecutor and White House cyber stalking adviser Hemanshu Nigam to serve as its chief security officer.

The Pentagon is joining local police departments in setting its sights on MySpace. The New Scientist magazine reported last week that the National Security Agency is "funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks." The plan, the New Scientist reports, is to add online data, including pictures and links to other people, clubs or hobbies to its phone analyses.

But teenagers who have grown up online are adept at getting around domestic surveillance systems and Web censors.

"Hacking on the Internet is just a new vehicle to being mischievous," Kellerman said. "Kids love to know what other people are thinking. Kids know they can screw other people up pretty badly."

And pretty easily. Trojan horse viruses that are easily downloaded from sites in Eastern Europe can be used to spy on someone else's computer from afar or to even to issue commands — like turning on a Webcam in a child's bedroom.

Even without knowledge or intent, teens can stumble into illegal activity.

When investigating a child pornography case in Illinois, Wistocki found a teen who was "just curious and looked for teen sex on [file sharing program] Limewire, and ended up downloading child porn files," Wistocki said. "Download it and you're guilty. It's just like drugs, if you're guilty of possession."

"Unfortunately, many parents don't find out what their children are doing online until the FBI appears at their door with a search warrant," Martha Stansell-Gamm, head of the Justice Department's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, wrote in Newsweek.

The concerns of schools and parents have spread to Capitol Hill, where legislation dubbed the Deleting Online Predators Act ( Read proposed bill) seeks to block teens' access to social-networking sites when in school or public libraries. The bill would block not only MySpace, but also Friendster, Google's Orkut, AOL and Yahoo instant messengers and even messaging-friendly Xbox 360.

Closer to home, parents, police and schools are mobilizing to educate one another on cyber crime both by and targeting teens. Wistocki gets a hand from local schools in teaching parents both about MySpace and keeping their computer safe from hacking. Nickel, in educational lectures across Canada, is adept at using scare tactics, such as tracking down a local woman's whereabouts, to demonstrate why he advocates keeping tight reigns on children's Internet use.

But the societal ethics of so much surveillance — police, domestic or educational — of teens are still undefined, Jenkins said.

"If the only training is police training parents to police their kids on MySpace, it keeps it a criminalized environment. No one knows how to guide kids through these spaces. There's a lot of surveillance going on, but not a lot of guidance," Jenkins said. "That's the challenge of the present moment."

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By Christine Lagorio
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