The New York Times
June 26, 2006
A Lesson for Parents on ‘MySpace Madness’
By TOM ZELLER Jr.
AFTER more than a year of hand-wringing, parental concern and political posturing over the safety of children from predators at MySpace.com, a 14-year-old girl and her mother are seeking $30 million in damages because they say that a 19-year-old man who met the teenager on the site assaulted her.
Adam Reposa, the attorney for the man accused of being a predator, told Time magazine on Thursday that he was considering his own lawsuit against MySpace and its owner, the News Corporation, because the girl was only 13 at the time of the supposed encounter, and MySpace rules prohibit anyone under 14 from creating a site. Seriously.
MySpace revised its rules a bit, making it harder for older users to interact with younger ones (at least for those telling the truth about their ages). But perhaps this is a good time to take a deep breath and recall that the original title of the 1936 film “Reefer Madness” was “Tell Your Children.”
It’s important here because somewhere lurking beneath even that misguided and hilariously inaccurate bit of popular hysteria, which suggested that smoking a marijuana cigarette leads to death, suicide and other mayhem, was, at the very least, the notion that parents shoulder much of the burden in teaching young ones to say “no.”
Seventy years later, we are in the throes of “MySpace Madness.” But if you really think MySpace is hazardous to your child’s health, there should be an implicit title here, too: “Tell Your Children.”
•”Suing MySpace for a sexual assault perpetrated by a predator on their network is a bit like suing the car company who made the car he picked her up with,” said Anthony Citrano, a co-founder of the technology public relations firm Fama PR in Cambridge, Mass., and a blogger at CosmicTap.com. “Both of these things made the assault possible, but no sane person thinks a car company should accept responsibility for every act a person could commit with it.”
Along with Friendster, Facebook, Xanga and lesser stars in the social networking constellation, MySpace and its ilk are, by design, fairly unregulated, unconstrained hangouts.
This is great fun for young people but, to an increasing number of furrowed brows, an unacceptably dangerous thing in a world awash with online predators.
According to a story in The New York Times last week (which the technology blog Techdirt.com was quick to highlight), summer camps are busy consulting lawyers and banning digital cameras because “they are increasingly concerned about being identified in photographs or comments on these sites, even innocuously.”
“Some camps like Camp Fernwood, a girls camp in Portland, Me.,” the article reported, “are trademarking their names, logos or slogans so they can legally order others not to use them online.”
A commenter at Techdirt called “The Angry American,” who probably read the article at The Times’s Web site, which is viewed by tens of millions of readers all over the planet, pointed out the absurdity of all this.
“Odd that the camps don’t worry about a major newspaper running a story using their real names and general locations, isn’t it? Now anyone with Internet access can find them.”
Mr. Citrano suggests the craze is further fueled by shows like the popcorn franchise on “Dateline NBC” called “To Catch a Predator,” which deploys members of a nonprofit group to pose as young boys and girls in online chats to lure unsuspecting creeps to a house rigged with cameras. It may be like hanging flypaper over a summer picnic, but does it say anything about sites like MySpace? Or about our children’s online acumen? After all, the jailbait is an actor — acting quite recklessly.
“If kids follow their instincts and the same common sense they’d use walking to school or going to the mall, it is remarkably safe,” Mr. Citrano argues. Still, abuse happens, and some critics say common sense isn’t going to stop it. “We as adults should do everything we can do to protect any child from any part of the world. It is our jobs to do so,” wrote WirelessGuy at Techdirt.com. “If you live in a box and only care about your own family and not about the children of others, then get off of my planet. You’re taking up valuable space, air an water.”
The chief scribe at BlogBloke.com expressed similar feelings in an e-mail message, and noted the benefits of a little security. He pointed to Imbee.com, for instance, a social network for 8- to 14-year-olds, which uses strict user authentication to ensure that only young people and their families have access to the service. “There’s no question that parents must also shoulder their responsibility,” he wrote. “But it’s not reasonable to put all of the responsibility on them and let the online hustlers off the hook.”
•That seems fair. But as Josie Swindler pointed out at the Fast Company magazine blog last week (blog.fastcompany.com), reasonable people can sometimes disagree on the definition of hustling.
“This MySpace lawsuit is reminiscent of a relatively new and sometimes lucrative form of American justice: the consumer passing blame to a provider,” Ms. Swindler wrote. “Is it the fault of Philip Morris if people become addicted to ‘light’ cigarettes? (A jury said it is.) Is it the fault of McDonald’s if a customer if burned when she spills hot coffee? (Also yes, according to a jury.) And is it MySpace’s fault when teenage girls are duped by older men? I guess we’ll see what a jury decides.”
Ken Chan, a brand manager for the video game company Acclaim Games and a blogger at BrandedNewb.com, echoed Ms. Swindler’s queries. The whole MySpace affair, at one point, put him in mind of … chicken.
Just two weeks ago, Mr. Chan noted in his blog that this newspaper had recorded another lawsuit, filed by a nutrition advocacy group against the fast-food chain KFC, to get it to stop using partly hydrogenated oils.
“I recognize that there’s a certain part of the population who don’t know a steady fried chicken diet is bad for them. I feel bad for these people,” Mr. Chan wrote. “However, these are probably the same people who don’t put on their seatbelts and who suck down endless coffee during the day and Coors at night. So let’s be honest with ourselves here. You’re not going to save these people. You’re just screwing up the chicken for the rest of us.”