Making Social Sites Safer

By Wendy Tanaka,

Maggie didn't always feel safe on MySpace. The 17-year-old New Rochelle, N.Y., resident used to receive lewd instant messages from a man who found her on the popular social networking site.

But after making a few changes to her profile recently, Maggie, who asked us not to publish her last name, got rid of the perpetrator and reclaimed her sense of security on the site. "I blocked the person's screen name, reported him on MySpace, changed my age to 99 and made my profile private," she says.

These small, common-sense actions can make a huge difference in safety on social networks, experts say. MySpace, Facebook and other social networks advocate taking such measures and post safety guidelines on their sites. While the majority of people on social networks are safe, a few high-profile cases of sexual predators and cyberbullying, such as the Missouri teen who committed suicide in 2006 after receiving taunting comments on her MySpace page, have prompted the industry to seek more ways to keep users out of harm's way.

At the behest of 49 states and the District of Columbia, MySpace in January agreed to implement a number of new safety policies. So far, MySpace has taken several steps, including creating an online tutorial to help parents better understand social networking and adding a software tool that allows parents to determine if their teens have a MySpace profile. In May, Facebook agreed to similar measures to make its site safer.

See: "Seven Tips For Keeping Kids Safe Online"

MySpace, the world's largest social network with more than 117 million monthly users, also created a task force to develop age and identity verification technology to protect minors from inappropriate behavior and content. In February, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School was selected to head the task force, and two dozen other companies and organizations, including Facebook, Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ), Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) and the Progress and Freedom Foundation, joined the initiative.

The task force, which is working on recommending identity verification technologies that can be used in the industry, has met twice so far. The discussions have centered on whether identity technologies can make social sites safer, or whether consumer education works best. State attorneys general believe more technological solutions are necessary, but some task force members contend that identity technologies on the market aren't adequate. And even if they were better, they likely can't prevent every unwanted incident and they could block contact between friends and relatives.

"So, if he's 16 and she's 21, they shouldn't talk? Maybe they're brother and sister," says Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

Thierer also says that too many checks and restrictions could turn off users and hamper advertising on social networks. "There's only so far the sites can go before undermining their business and cutting off their customer base," he says. "At some point, it becomes an annoyance for users."

Both Facebook and MySpace, however, say safety improvements should make their sites more attractive to advertisers. "It makes users loyal and advertisers want to come to our site," says Chris Kelly, chief privacy officer at Facebook.

MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam agrees that advertisers like secure sites. "Every advertiser wants to make sure its brand isn't tarnished on a particular site," he says.

The focus on identity technologies makes the assumption that sexual predators are the biggest safety problems for social networks, but cyberbullying is far more common. According to a recent report in the journal Pediatrics, a third of children age 10 to 15 said they have been verbally harassed online, while half as many reported being sexually solicited.

Larry Magid, co-director of task force member, an Internet safety site for families, says most children who get involved with sexual predators understand the situation. "It appears that kids who do get in trouble with predators are high-risk kids," he says. "In one way or another, they are seeking out this attention."

Magid and Thierer say there should be more consumer education to prevent cyberbullying and more common-sense practices to ensure greater safety on social sites. "There are no easy technical fixes for complex human behavioral problems," Thierer says. "We need to teach kids 'Netiquette.' "

Parry Aftab, a former Internet lawyer who now runs, another task force member, says it's too early to say how the task force will handle all these issues. "It's going to take us a little while to gather everything together," she says. "When you're dealing with social issues, everyone comes at it with his own perspective. The most important thing to come out of this is a reality check: this is important, this isn't. Do a lay of the land and here's where we go."

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