Teen Web site getting too much attention

Posted: Sunday, February 26, 2006

When baby boomers were teenagers, many wrote about their lives in secret diaries. A prying parent had to snoop and invade a child’s privacy to get the hot dirt.

That was 1966. This is 2006.

Today’s parents wanting to find out about their teenagers’ lives need only visit their child’s profile on Myspace.com. There, they can read their blogs, or Web logs. They can find out their tastes in music, movies and books. They can see what their children’s friends write and see the friends’ profiles. If their children have posted photographs, they may even see pictures of them slugging back vodka with some of their best buds.

So can the world.

Myspace.com describes itself as “a place for friends.” About 20 percent of Homer High School students are members. A service with more than 56 million members, Myspace.com was purchased last summer for $580 million by News Corp., the international media company owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Members have to be age 14 — or say they are — to join. Profiles for members ages 14 and 15 are private and by invitation only. Myspace.com has policies regarding privacy, e-mail abuse, fake profiles and other issues. It advises users not to post identifiable information.

“You never know who you are chatting with online,” the site notes in its safety tips. “That cute 21-year-old guy may not be cute, may not be 21 and may not be a guy!”

Myspace.com has received national press because of allegations that sexual predators found their victims through it. Earlier this month, Middletown, Conn., police investigated reports that seven girls ages 12 to 16 had sex with men they met through Myspace.com and whom the girls thought were younger.

Last week sheriffs in Santa Cruz County, Calif., arrested a 26-year-old man for felony child molestation. They alleged he claimed to be 15 and 17 and that he molested a 14-year-old girl he met through Myspace.com.

In Homer, not many of the parents contacted for this story had explored Myspace.com. At the Homer High School PTA and site council, it hasn’t come up as a topic — yet.

“There are so many parents I’ve told about this who have no idea and whose kids have Web sites on there,” said Polly Hess, a Homer woman active in the arts and dance.

Hess heard about Myspace.com from her sister in Orange County, Calif.

For anyone with basic Internet skills, locating local high school students is easy. The home page has a “find your classmates” search feature. Enter “Homer High School” in the school name box and “Alaska” in the state box, and the search shows two schools, Homer Flex and Homer High. Clicking on either of those brings up the profiles of past students. Another search box allows a narrower search.

To find current students, click the “current student” box. Set the age range for 16-18, click update, and the profiles for about 95 Homer High School students come up. The directory shows photographs and lists information like age, sex, city and state — even sexual orientation.

Some teenagers use nicknames for their profiles, while others use their first names. It’s not too hard to figure out identities of some profiles, since some kids list their full names. Myspace.com members can invite friends to create a profile and then join their pages. Some kids even list their phone numbers. Some reveal too much information, like this girl’s “about me” description:

“I get into trouble a lot and am hated by all of my school’s substitutes and town’s troopers, I love my weed and need my cigarettes and can’t live without my sex and alcohol.”

One boy not only gives his full name, he tells where he lives. He also includes photographs of him drinking alcohol with his friends. In his “about me” description, he writes, “There isn’t a lot to do here, but there is parties, shreddin’ powder at Ohlson, killing moose during high school exit exams, snagging kings in June, killin’ seagulls with a car, pretty much anything with police.”

Not every teenager reveals such a wild life. Most pages are innocent, with the sort of chat expected of high school students: sports, girls and boys, music or hallway gossip.

Hannah Harrison, a Homer High School senior attending school this semester at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, said she uses her profile to keep in touch with friends in Homer and from Outside. She likes the “comments” feature, which allows her and her friends to make quick posts to each other.

“It’s like sending a little e-mail through Myspace,” she said.

Harrison said her father, Brian Harrison, has talked to her and her younger sister about Internet privacy. She said he didn’t know about Myspace.com until Hannah told him about it.

“My attitude about the Internet in general is you’re easy prey to people you can’t see,” Brian Harrison said. “I don’t see the need for getting all this stuff out there for anybody to peruse.”

That’s a concern of Rachael Roe, president of the Homer High School Parent-Teacher Association. The PTA hasn’t talked about Myspace.com, but Roe knew about it from her college-age daughter.

“There’s lots of information out there for the world to see and you have no control over who sees it,” Roe said.

The Homer High School site council hasn’t discussed Myspace.com either, said Kathy Pate, head of the council. She heard about Myspace.com from Hess, and then discussed it with her own teenage children.

“We’ve talked a lot about being on the Internet and chatting,” Pate said. “I told them I did not want them putting their information out there.”

Homer police haven’t investigated any crimes associated with Myspace.com or similar chat rooms or blog sites, said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl. Robl said he hadn’t seen the site. He said parents should monitor Web use by their children, and be careful about information children put on the Web.

“It’s dangerous,” Robl said. “There are a lot of savvy predators on the Internet who can exploit kids, and exploit them for some pretty horrible reasons.”

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District blocks Myspace.com on its network, said Homer High School Principal Ron Keffer. He wasn’t familiar with the site, but has concerns about inappropriate Web use.

“People taking advantage of kids on the Web is something that’s at the top of my radar,” Keffer said.

From cops to parents to school officials, all had the same advice: monitor children’s Web use and talk to them about not putting private information where everyone can see it. If students need a guideline about what not to post, Pate had a suggestion.

“If you’ve got stuff on there you wouldn’t want your parents or grandparents to see, it’s probably not appropriate,” she said.

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