MySpace is a free online community composed of personal profiles aimed foremostly at a younger membership. A profile on the site typically includes a digital photo and in-depth information about the member's personal interests. The amount of detail included in the profile is up to the user and submitted voluntarily. MySpace policy requires users be at least 14 years of age to join. Members routinely send each other messages and “network” or socialize within the community.
The format of MySpace makes it easy for anyone to submit profile information, even if he or she has little online experience. Though the domain has proved incredibly popular, reportedly hosting over 60 million profiles, it has also come under fire. The concern is that the vast majority of members may be too inexperienced to realize the potential danger of posting personal information online. Some profiles contain not only a picture, but the user's first and last name, location, and details like favorite music and foods. This information enables a predator to easily target and befriend a victim.
MySpace members might also choose to fill out “the survey.” The survey asks such questions as whether the member has ever had sex, skinny-dipped, smoked, drunk alcohol, or taken drugs. Members that post to MySpace expect their profiles to be read by kids their own age, explaining the often suggestive answers and leading innuendo typical of teenage bravado. Provocative or not, these profiles provide a "protected" hunting ground where potential predators can choose, stalk and befriend victims, sight unseen. Bolstered by a plethora of personal information, the predator can easily manipulate the potential victim into a false sense of security and familiarity while misrepresenting himself entirely through his own false profile. Though forbidden by the site, false profiles are all but impossible to prevent within the framework.
In some cases, MySpace members come forward when solicited. For example, in February 2006, CBS reported that a 14-year-old girl was approached for sex though MySpace by a 38-year-old man. The man was subsequently arrested when police assumed the girl’s identity while he, unknowingly, continued to ask for sex.
Other MySpace members haven’t been so lucky. Several reports from around the US have linked the site to children who were either murdered or went missing. Just before 14-year-old Judy Cajuste of New Jersey was murdered in January 2006, the girl apparently told friends she’d met a man in his 20s through MySpace. Similarly, 15-year-old Kayla Reed of Northern California was reportedly an active member of the site until the day she disappeared on 2 December 2005. Her body was found seven weeks later, the victim of murder.
While the connection of these and many other reports to MySpace may only be coincidental, the implication is troubling. Due to growing concerns, in April 2006, MySpace announced it would begin serving public information ads geared towards educating its users. The banner ads are part of a larger campaign that began in 2004, initiated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Additionally, as of 1 May 2006, Hemanshu Nigan, a former federal prosecutor specializing in child exploitation, began overseeing the safety division of MySpace. Nigan previously worked for Microsoft Corporation, developing computer strategies designed to better protect children.
Online safety strategies notwithstanding, parents are well advised to take an active role in protecting their children from online predators.