How Safe Is Social Networking?
In light of a high-profile cyberbullying and suicide case on MySpace last year, many social network users--and the parents of teenage MySpacers, especially--are thinking twice about the wisdom of spending life online.
Midwestern mom Mary (not her real name) has a deal with her high-school-age daughter that her MySpace profile must be private, shielding her from all but her known, real-world friends. But when the 15-year-old created a fictional female MySpace character with her 14-year-old friend, who was still in middle school, they made the account public and soon began chatting with an older high-school boy. Then, the middle-schooler agreed to meet the boy in person, triggering a crisis in both girls' families.
"When you get to make up somebody, they're exciting, they're more adventurous than you really are," says Mary, who was unhappy with the fake account but even more shocked that it progressed to a face-to-face meeting.
Kate Casavecchia Crisp, director of a Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit organization, has weathered online dangers, too, but continues to participate actively at social networking sites. She has employed more than a dozen social sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, and Twitter, to promote her organization's education and advocacy goals, attracting the occasional loony along the way.
"I got stalked by a crazy in a group I led for awhile," she recalls, after kicking the woman out of a discussion group for repeatedly cursing at other members. The episode has made her wary of posting her photo in online profiles, so she often replaces it with a cartoony avatar. "These virtual types, some of them are scary," she says. "I don't want to run into them at the market."
Magazine publisher Waylon Lewis says his company used a MySpace page to promote parties and other events for its yoga-culture magazine, Elephant, until the page began attracting so much porn spam that he had to abandon the effort. But Lewis's story has a happy ending: His company fled from MySpace to Facebook, and he finds it a great place to publicize events and build community around the magazine. Lewis says his Facebook inbox is completely spam-free, but he wonders whether that, too, might pass if Facebook's ownership or policies change: "I didn't used to get triple-X spam on MySpace."