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Unsupervised world of blogs big draw for teens

Oliver Prichard Knight Ridder

“I hate boys, but I sure do LOVE men!” a 17-year-old student from Bucks County, Pa., announces in her Web log. Keep clicking. You’ll see her in pink undies and learn that “pornography” is her hobby. She invites messages from anyone who “likes what they’re reading.”

For a 15-year-old Gloucester County, N.J., girl, a bikini shot is her greeting card to cyberspace. Admirers are welcome to comment. One asks her to repair his car in the same swimsuit.

A 16-year-old in Chester County, Pa., had a party while his parents were away. On his Web page, friends give him props. One praises the potent weed. One recounts “looking at porn” on the mother’s computer. Another raves, “I woke up on the floor 3 times.”

Such is the scenery in the vast, almost-anything-goes playground of online social networking, where tens of millions of teens congregate for interaction, self-expression, mischief-making, and more than a little risk-taking.

Although some have been around for a few years, host sites such as MySpace.com and the smaller Xanga, Facebook, Friendster, and LiveJournal have exploded in recent months into the hottest hangouts ever. MySpace alone claims 41 million subscribers worldwide already – more than 90 percent between age 14 and 30 – and is pulling in 150,000 more each day.

The lures to the IM generation are irresistible. For no charge, users can build personal pages with photo galleries, graphics, sound and video clips, profiles and journal entries, or blogs, that many update daily.

From there, they can browse the entire network, linking with others in a virtually limitless, and largely unsupervised, universe of connections.

“I know people who spend hours a day playing with their pages,” said Steven Friedman, a senior at the Main Line’s Lower Merion High School, where he estimates that half the students are heavy Web users. “It’s the first thing they do when they get home.”

As the phenomenon has grown, so has adult angst.

Law enforcement officials, school administrators and parents – those who know about it – say the “friend sites” are giving teens a global stage on which to embarrass themselves and abuse their peers. And because most young people have only a fuzzy idea of the Internet’s global reach (an industry-estimated one billion people, of varying honor and stability), they are posting provocative photos and personal details – names, phone numbers, addresses – that can be seized upon by both sexual predators and identity thieves.

On a page that’s more the norm than not, a Jersey Shore teen teases that she’s a naive schoolgirl and poses in an early-Britney getup: short skirt, pigtails and bare midriff. Her profile pinpoints even the sales counter at the local department store where she works.

“Parents might know their kid has (a page), but have no idea how much information they’re sharing with complete strangers,” said Cheryl Erlick, mother of a college student and a sophomore. “Kids are so open. Lots of them will brazenly discuss their sexuality.”

This fall, a cautionary forum for one high school’s parents and students was hosted by Erlick and principal Nick Rotoli. He calls networking a “nightmare.”

“They can be the honor student at school and a good kid at home,” he said, “but online they will try out how it feels to be the looser, wilder, more defiant kid. It’s easy to do.”

Across the country, incidents confirming everyone’s fears are beginning to pop up.

In September, a 16-year-old girl in Port Washington, N.Y., was abducted and molested after trading messages on MySpace with a 37-year-old man. He was able to track her down, police said, because she had posted her job address on her page.

Last month, 2,600 students at a San Antonio, Texas, high school stayed home when four classmates spread threats on MySpace that there would be “shooting and killing” on the campus.

If you allow “minors to post their thoughts … and not monitor it in an adult manner,” school spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told a radio reporter, “you are asking for trouble.”

That trouble does not extend to the host sites. The Federal Communications Decency Act insulates them from liability for crimes committed through their sites – just as the phone company isn’t to blame for what transpires over its lines, said Parry Aftab, a nationally known, lawyer specializing in Internet issues.

The problems facing schools typically are taking a less felonious form: cyber-bullying.

Never known for impulse control, adolescents can feel emboldened in front of a computer that won’t rat them out or punch them out.

“Kids can be really creative in finding ways to be demonic toward their peers, and this is the newest form of being mean,” said Katie Koestner, director of Campus Outreach Services in Wayne, N.J., which offers programs on risky behavior to high schools and colleges. Online networking has been at the top of the request list this year.

In her travels, she is hearing more and more shuddery tales of computer-assisted cruelty.

Such as the two 10th-grade boys in Connecticut who used editing software to superimpose faces of female classmates on a lesbian sex photo.

Or the North Carolina girl who planted a phony page for her rival, professing a fondness for certain sex acts.

Or the California student who received death threats from classmates after discussing his homosexuality online. He ended up leaving the school.

Fed up with feuds and scandals moving at broadband speed through their districts, school administrators are increasingly blocking the sites from school computers and urging parents to keep tabs on their children’s cyber lives.

Public schools are powerless to do much more.

According to Aftab, the Internet lawyer, they lack the legal muscle to control what students post online – unless districts draft “acceptable-use policies” laying down rules. When signed by parents, she said, the policies become contractual agreements that give administrators the authority to police students’ Internet use, and to discipline offenders.

Some private schools have gone much further.

In the New Jersey town of Sparta, students at Pope John XXIII Regional High School face suspension if caught using the networks at all, even on their own time at home.

“When these Web sites open up to bullying, harassment, pornography and sexual advances, you’ve got to pay attention,” said Marianna Thompson, a Paterson Diocese spokeswoman. “It has nothing to do with censorship. It’s common sense.”

Such blanket bans could wither under a First Amendment challenge, lawyer Aftab said.

“A lot of these Catholic and private schools … should be very cautious with that position,” she said. “There will likely be lawsuits, and even if (the schools) win in the end – which there is no guarantee they would – there could be $100,000 in legal fees.”

In the face of blistering criticism, site managers contend that they have been as vigilant as possible, given the Alice in Wonderland nature of the Internet.

MySpace sets an age minimum of 14, and Xanga, 13. But there is nothing to prevent younger children from fibbing to get a page and access. Or for that matter, to prevent anyone from masquerading as anything behind bogus photos and profiles. (MySpace posts warnings to users: “That cute 21-year-old guy may not be cute, may not be 21, and may not be a guy!”)

The general rule at networking sites is that members must agree not to put violent, pornographic or otherwise offensive material on their pages. But Web site operators do not screen content before it is posted.

MySpace also posts procedures to report misuse of the site, so that “as soon as they know something offensive goes up, it will come down,” said spokeswoman Nicole Harvey.

By then, critics argue, the damage might not only be done, but also immortalized.

Whatever.

“I’ve met some creepy, perverted older men on MySpace,” said Kate Callahan, 19, a college student.

She is not deterred.

For hours a day, she answers messages, reads comments left on her page, looks for the latest party photos, and trolls for buddies, new and old.

“I usually check out my boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend, my ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriends, my best friends,” Callahan said. “I’m, like, addicted. I think about it when I’m out, and every free chance I have, I jump on a computer.”

As for the raging-hormone pages that horrify their elders, “more than half of it is a joke,” said a high school senior who requested anonymity because she has posted suggestive photos.

Her page, she said, draws not grown-up peepers but “little preteen boys – some as young as 9 years old – looking for hot chicks.” She has posted a warning to them to get lost.

“Personally, I’m not too worried about other people seeing my MySpace,” she said, echoing the prevailing teen take. “It’s `my space,’ so I get to put whatever I want on here. If you don’t like it, feel free to sign out.”

Bare skin and flexed muscles may be just the eye-candy coating on networkers’ core mission. That is to solicit one another as “friends.” The race to collect hundreds, if not thousands, is the new popularity contest.

Example: John asks Jane whether he may become a friend. If she accepts, they’re free to leave comments on each other’s page.

Friend tallies are posted scoreboard-style.

That is how “you can tell who the popular kids are,” said one high school freshman. She also asked for anonymity, not only because of racy photos but also because she lists herself in her profile as 16, which she hardly is.

While teens interviewed for this story conceded that adult worries aren’t entirely groundless, they made it clear that the Princess-phone generation can forget about stuffing this development back in the bottle.

Unlike their forebears, they are conditioned to follow each other’s lives through the Web, said Steven Friedman, the high school senior.

“It is,” as he put it, “just the next evolution of social interaction.”

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