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Mon., April 9, 2007

When a teenager becomes another statistic of online abuse, people often blame the victim for not knowing the rules or ignoring common sense.

Some blame also falls on parents, at least in instances when they might have exercised control over what happened to their kids online.

But not enough blame is directed at the companies that design Web sites or make products that don’t make online security a major concern, said one Seattle-based online security researcher.

“Parents should be responsible for their kids online, but the cards are really stacked against them by the tech companies who make products that aren’t safe,” said Linda Criddle, who is also the author of the book “Look Both Ways.”

Criddle has looked at numerous Web sites where kids and teens gather. Most don’t make clear that personal information submitted can often be found easily by others, including possible predators.

“I’m irritated that parents are getting the blame. Too often the products made by companies are not tested for safety,” said Criddle. “And parents are not being told those problems exist. There’s a huge gap” between what parents hope is there and what often is the case, said Criddle, who worked as a product manager at Microsoft before switching careers.

She’s especially critical of MySpace, the planet’s most popular social networking site. Its major shortcoming is a signup process that fails to explain the full impact of what information a new user submits, said Criddle.

When someone creates a MySpace account, the person’s profile is set to open and public. “It should be automatic and the default condition that the profile be private unless you make the actual step of changing it,” said Criddle.

The MySpace signup process also encourages a person to use a real name when creating a profile, she added. Younger users often don’t understand the impact of doing that, said Criddle. “It makes you very easy for others to track,” she said.

Of the other sites she tracks, Criddle said the worst offender is, a social networking site that Criddle said asks teens to be suggestive and flirty online. “It let me sign up as a 15-year-old boy and it didn’t even need a valid e-mail address.”

She goes so far as to call it an online trolling service for lazy predators, because it sends out weekly e-mail messages to its members referring them to teen members of espinthebottle who have similar interests.

Candice Kelsey, a teacher in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of a book on MySpace, contends that by and large teens have learned to protect personal information online. She recently e-mailed 100 randomly chosen teens on MySpace and asked them to add her to their friends list. All 100 had set their profiles to private. If they accepted Kelsey as a friend, she’d have access to their MySpace profiles and be able to learn what they do and who else was among their “friends.”

All but two denied her request, Kelsey said in an interview.

At her online security blog at, Kelsey offers comments on what parents and children can do together to maintain a safer online experience.

When teens disclose information that can lead to possible exploitation, it’s typically due to poor judgment rather than conscious planning, Kelsey added.

“The main factor is that they’re up late at night, keeping vampire hours. That pattern tends to encourage lapses in judgment,” said Kelsey.

A casual online chat might lead to sending a photo to someone who could use it to track the identity of a vulnerable teen. Or an online conversation might reveal a home address or a personal cell phone number or even the name of a high school. Such details in actual incidents in the past have given predators just enough information to track or stalk a victim.

Kelsey and others know teens sometimes just get in over their heads and don’t anticipate the range of possible consequences.

“They’re at the age when they’re learning how much self-expression they’ll have. It’s a time of burgeoning sexuality as well,” and that can open the door to personal exploitation, she said.

A 2005 case in Post Falls took shape in large part because a 16-year-old girl developed an online relationship with an 18-year-old Texas man she met in a chat room. The man later arranged for his friends in North Idaho to drive the girl to what police described as “sex parties” in the Spokane area.

The teen’s parents had no idea what their daughter was doing, said Lt. Greg McLean of the Post Falls police department, which investigated that case.

Educators and online experts all agree parents need to talk with their children, learn what they’re doing and not be afraid to ask questions.

Criddle said she also learned from experience that establishing rules makes sense. Her son, now 15, had a cell phone with him at all hours. One night Criddle realized he had left home to meet his friends well after she had gone to bed. The son’s teenage friends text-messaged him at his home, and he joined them without telling her.

“Now I have phone rules,” said Criddle. “No cell phones are allowed on during dinner. And I take the phone away at bedtime.”

Criddle and others also insist that parents learn to deal with online issues without resorting to banning the problematic technology.

By taking a computer away or denying a child all use of a phone, parents will likely find a son or daughter deceiving them, still finding ways to use those devices and lying about it.

“You need to set controls over the TV, the cell phone and the computer,” added Criddle. “Safety is not something you do ‘to’ or ‘for’ someone. It’s something a parent does with someone.”

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