Zach Wade, a 17-year-old Rock Bridge High School junior, often logs onto MySpace.com right after school. Then he does his homework, eats dinner and is usually back on the Web site in the evening.
Sites like MySpace.com, Xanga.com and facebook.com, where users interact after creating a profile that includes their picture, interests and other information, are part of the online lifestyle of many junior high and high school students. But for parents and law enforcement officers, they are still a relatively new and frightening frontier because of the potential for sexual predators to use the sites to troll for underage victims.
Nationally publicized cases involving MySpace, such as a recent case in Connecticut in which two men were charged with meeting underage girls on the site, have brought online safety concerns into the living rooms of parents in Boone County and across the country.
MySpace, the largest of the sites with 68 million users, has sparked most of the worries. The site was second only to Yahoo! in number of page views in March, according to Internet research company Comscore. According to a press release by MySpace, 22 percent of its users are younger than 18.
“I’m fully aware that the danger exists,” Zach Wade said. “A lot of it is just personal responsibility, being aware that that can happen and making good choices. You can get a lot of info on (the site). If you were a sex predator online, they have a browsing feature where you can search out your next victim. You can even select body type.”
That’s exactly what concerns law enforcement officers, said Joe Laramie, director of Missouri’s Internet Crimes Against Children task force. Laramie said concern about online safety for minors has shifted from chat rooms to sites like MySpace because some children use them to share personal information.
“Right now I’ve got MySpace running on my computer,” Laramie said. “I’ve got a group of kids, their pictures, their information. They start sharing all this information about who they are and what they do and where they go. As a parent, it’s scary, and as a police officer who investigates these kinds of crimes and who has seen the good and the bad of the Internet, it’s kind of freaky that kids are so naive.”
In 2005, Missouri received 271 referrals from the Cyber Tip Line, the emergency line for complaints involving online child enticement and Internet child pornography. It receives reports at its Web site,
cybertipline.com, and by phone
Boone County Sheriff’s Department Detective Andy Anderson said he thinks more people and resources are needed in Boone County to combat the problem.
Anderson runs an undercover sting operation, posing as an adolescent girl in online hangouts such as chat rooms and social networking sites, including MySpace. He responds when a person contacts him, but allows the person to lead the conversation, he said. If the person asks to meet for a sexual encounter, Anderson sets up a meeting at a controlled location in Boone County where the arrest is made.
Earlier this year, a man was convicted of attempted enticement of a child and attempted statutory rape after meeting Anderson online and showing up for a meeting with a box of condoms and a Web cam.
The sting operation has yielded 13 arrests since it began in October 2004. Anderson called it an alarming number, pointing out that among his duties as a detective, he spends a comparatively small amount of time going online and trolling for predators.
Even if most kids use Web sites in healthy ways, any potential for harm should be taken seriously, he said.
“I think one child molested is significant. Every crime against a child is a significant thing,” Anderson said.
Monday night, he spoke to a roomful of parents about Internet safety at “Internet Smartz,” an event hosted by Rainbow House, a children’s emergency and advocacy center.
Rainbow House team member Jamie Schwartz said the event was organized in response to a lot of discussion recently about online predators and because April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. She said 15 to 20 people attended, and parents told her it opened their eyes to the importance of making sure teens are safe from online predators.
“We see it as a very real problem,” Schwartz said. “We think it’s very good for the community to be educated on that.”
The good news for parents is that most children do use the site in healthy ways, said Danah Boyd, a doctoral student at the University of California-Berkeley who has researched MySpace. Boyd said most teens use it as a place in cyberspace to hang out relatively free from the control of authority figures. Children use online communities to seek out the social cues that inform their search for identity, Boyd said.
Zach Wade’s father, Dale, said he has heard national news stories about pedophiles using MySpace to find victims, but he isn’t worried about his son using it.
“There’s a danger in everything,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, you just have to be careful when you go online. My wife and I have always told our boys you can’t put too much personal information, like your name and where you live.”
Dale Wade said he found out about the site when Zach told him about pictures of his jazz band, Random Blues, that a friend had posted on her MySpace profile.
“So far, I’ve just experienced positive-type things with it,” Dale Wade said.
Laramie said that kind of communication between parents and their children is a good way to keep children safe.
“Parents need to take an active part in their children’s lives and communicate with them about what they’re doing online,” he said.
Anderson said he thinks it’s important that parents, especially if they have children in junior high or younger, set specific rules for Internet use at home.
“Keep the computer in a common area,” he said. “I think parents need to monitor where kids are going on the Internet and who they’re talking to.”
A portion of this report first aired Wednesday during “News At 10” on KMIZ/Channel 17 ABC, Columbia.