At MySpace.com and many other popular online hangouts, a 30-something woman can celebrate her Sweet 16 over and over with just a click of the mouse. A 12-year-old can quickly mature to meet the sites’minimum age requirements, generally 14, while an adult looking to chat with teens can virtually shed several years.
With heightened concerns over sexual predators lurking at so-called social-networking sites, state attorneys general have called for such communities, particularly MySpace, to improve age and identity checks. If only it were so easy, experts say.
“We’re all just grasping for solutions,”said Anne Collier, co-author of the forthcoming”MySpace Unraveled: What It Is and How to Use It Safely.”We haven’t fully researched it and thought about all the implications.”
News Corp.’s MySpace has met with several companies on technologies to verify ages, but it has yet to find an effective one, Michael Angus, general counsel of News Corp.’s Fox Interactive Media unit, told Congress last month.
In an interview, MySpace’s safety czar, Hemanshu Nigam, said any technical solution must be part of a set that includes education and cooperation with law enforcement.
“As we progress in our evaluation of what’s best out there, you’re going to see many different things coming,”he said.
Parents, school administrators and police have become increasingly worried that teens are finding trouble at social-networking sites, which provide tools for messaging, sharing photos and creating personal pages known as profiles. The aim of such sites is for users to expand their circles of friends.
MySpace has gotten the brunt of the complaints given its leadership with more than 94 million registered users, about 20 percent of them under 18.
In June, the mother of a 14-year-old who says she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old user sued MySpace and News Corp., seeking $30 million in damages. The lawsuit, filed in a Texas state court, claims the 19-year-old lied about being a senior in high school to gain her trust and phonenumber.
MySpace has recently implemented policies designed to better separate kids from adults. Among the changes, adult MySpace users must already know a 14- or 15-year-old user’s e-mail address or full name to initiate contact or view a profile containing personal information.
However, because age is self-reported, as it is at similar sites, adults could simply sign up as minors.
There are tools to verify age, but they work best for porn, wine-sales and other sites meant for adults only.
A credit card, for instance, could demonstrate that a user is of age, notwithstanding a teen’s ability to”borrow”a card from Dad’s wallet.
More robust techniques like those from IDology Inc. and Sentinel Tech Holding Corp.’s Sentry check addresses, birth dates and other information users provide against public databases, such as voting and property records.
But many social-networking sites cater to both adults and teens _ and teens can be difficult to verify.
Minors”do not possess as many unique identifiers as adults do,”said Adam Thierer, a senior fellow with the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a technology think tank that shuns government regulation.”They are not voters yet. They don’t have home mortgages or car loans. Most don’t have drivers licenses until they are 16.”
Many states restrict the disclosure of drivers license data on minors, and school administrators guard their registration records fiercely.
“Do parents really want … that kind of information available on their children?”Collier asked.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said raising the minimum age to 16 from 14 would help because many teens have drivers licenses by then. He has called for federal incentives for sites like MySpace to perform age verification.
Attorneys General Jim Petro of Ohio and Greg Abbott of Texas, meanwhile, support verification via credit card, while Massachusetts’Tom Reilly has called for unspecified”age and identity verification.”
“Don’t tell me it can’t be done,”Blumenthal said.”It’s a question of whether the company in good faith really wants to know those ages and sacrifice some of the excitement and coolness that comes with anonymity.”
Getting a reliable system developed could require expenditures and perhaps result in a smaller base of users, he said,”but if we can invent the Internet, … surely there are means to verify the ages of those individuals, or such means can be developed.”
Facebook takes a stab at verification by restricting access only to those with a valid e-mail address from a high school, college or participating company. It is happy to have 8 million registered users, less than 10 percent of MySpace’s.
Industrious Kid Inc.’s imbee, for kids 8 to 14, requires parents to submit credit cards to vouch for their children.
Of course, an adult may”vouch”for an alter ego and use that to chat with kids. Thus, all imbee profiles are initially private, and adults can’t do much without tricking a parent into letting them join a child’s network, said Tim Donovan, imbee’s vice president of marketing.
Zoey’s Room, a site for girls 10-14, has verified each of its 300 members with a school or youth group. It charges $15 a year.
“It does cost to create safe communities,”said Erin Reilly, co-founder of the organization that runs Zoey’s Room.”I would rather have a manageable population and keep them all safe … instead of looking for a million unique visitors.”
IDology believes its technology could help keep children safe. A verified adult could be given greater access and the ability to share profiles openly. Anyone not willing or able to be verified, including teens, would be left with limited access and private profiles.
But any technical solution tough enough to work would penalize legitimate users who cannot be verified, said John Cardillo, Sentry’s chief executive. Even 18- and 19-year-olds aren’t fully in public databases yet, he said.
MySpace, instead, has been trying to catch minors after the fact.
It has technology to scan for inconsistencies and teams of employees to investigate further. For example, a user who claims to be 18 might mention a sixth-grade class elsewhere in the profile, or feature a photo of a birthday cake with only 13 candles.
Safety experts warn that creating too many barriers could drive kids to another social-networking site with fewer controls, or perhaps free-for-all chat rooms.
And ineffective solutions, they say, could give parents and children a false sense of security, increasing the dangers.
Ron Teixeira, executive director for the National Cyber Security Alliance, said parents should teach children an online equivalent of”Don’t take candy from strangers.”That way, he said, kids will know what to do should social networking be replaced by the next big fad.
“You need to take a holistic approach,”Teixeira said.”Education is the way you teach children to be proactive, and that will stay with them forever.”