Social networking involves online groups of people who share some common interests. As part of their interactions, users create webpages in which they can post pictures, videos, information about themselves, articles, and much more. Users then invite people to be their friends, which grants them access to see the pages. MySpace, a social networking site is owned by Fox Interactive Media, has more than 115 million monthly users across the globe. Facebook, another popular social networking site, boasts more than 400 million users worldwide.
Students say bullying and harassment often begins on social networking sites. In recent years, reports have documented the rise in cyberbullying, which is often facilitated through social networking sites. Some cases have received national attention. In one case, a teenage girl’s mother orchestrated the bullying through MySpace that led to another girl’s suicide. When Lori Drew’s daughter told her about an argument she had with her best friend, Megan Meier, she also said she thought Megan was saying bad things about her in school and on MySpace. Drew helped create a MySpace page for a fictitious character, Josh, who “friended” Meier and began to create an online relationship with her. After some time, Josh told Meier told her he hated her and that the world would be better without her. In October 2006, Meier hung herself. Drew was indicted in the case and found guilty of three counts of computer hacking. At the time, prosecutors had a difficult time finding appropriate laws they could use to try Drew. Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, became the first town in the United States to pass legislation to make cyberharassment a specific offense.
In another case, when John Halligan’s son Josh committed suicide after being cyberbullied, Halligan lobbied for a bullying prevention law in Vermont that would include cyberbullying; the law was passed. In another case, bullies posted a fake profile of Drew McGowan,claiming he was a homosexual. Phoebe Prince, who was bullied on Facebook by a group of girls from her high school, committed suicide in 2009.
Students have also posted “hit lists” of people whom they intend to kill or inappropriate pictures, such as themselves with weapons and drugs. Often these posts lead school administrators or police to intervene before an attack or criminal incident occurs. Police are now trolling the web, including MySpace and Facebook, to look for clues suggestive of potential violence.
Social networking sites are also used by abusive teen partners as a method to control their victims. Teens may post embarrassing pictures or information or threaten their partners via these sites.
MySpace is aware of the concern that it can be used for violent or criminal purposes and has prepared a “School Administrator’s Guide” to assist administrators in addressing problems that might arise. The organization reports that, while the majority (78%) of student Internet use occurs off school grounds, parents generally believe that schools have a responsibility to ensure children’s Internet safety. More than 40% of parents have reached out to school administrators for advice on this topic. The MySpace guide includes information explaining how to contact MySpace in the event that a false or offensive profile is posted, or in the case of threats, cyberbullying, or suspected underage users. The guide talks parents through how to handle each of these issues.
MySpace says it is committed to protecting users, in particular young ones. New profiles for persons younger than the age of 18 are automatically defaulted to a private setting, which should prohibit uninvited persons from seeing the information. Users are not able to browse for profile pages by persons younger than the age of 16. All users younger than the age of 18 are required to read a list of safety tips before registering, receive warnings before posting any content, and must preapprove any comments made on their page. Young users are also prohibited from browsing inappropriate pages, such as romance and relationship chat forums, adult message groups, and mature groups.
On January 14, 2008, state attorneys general from 49 states announced an agreement with MySpace that they felt would better protect children and young people. MySpace agreed to take the following steps:
- Create a task force to develop age and identity verification technology to keep underage children off its site
- Set up a registry of blocked email addresses of minors, to be supplied by parents
- Make the profiles of members ages 14-17 “private” by default, meaning they can be seen by friends only
- Establish a “high school” section of the site for users younger than age 18
- Respond within 72 hours to complaints about inappropriate content
- Hire more staff to police such content as photos and discussion boards
The lone holdout from the agreement, Texas State Attorney Greg Abbott, refused to sign the agreement because he claimed that social networking sites could not adequately protect young people.
Like MySpace, Facebook claims to take great precautions to protect users, but has faced criticisms that they are not sufficient.
PBS Frontline has produced two informative episodes about youth in the digital age. Growing Up Online and Digital Nation examine how technology is being used by young people, explore the risks they face, and suggest ways to keep them safe. Both episodes, which can be viewed online, also include resources for parents and educators.
- Associated Press. (2008, May 15). Missouri woman indicted in MySpace cyber bullying case that ended in teen’s suicide. Fox News. http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/05/15/missouri-woman-indicted-in-myspace-cyber-bullying-case-that-ended-in-teen/
- Digital Nation: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/
- Teen Dating Violence. (2010). Violence Against Women Online Resources. http://www.ncdsv.org/publications_dateteenviolence.html
- Growing Up Online: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline/view/
- Leonard, T. (2007, November 23). MySpace suicide town outlaws online bullying. The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1570308/MySpace-suicide-town-outlaws-online-bullying.html
- MySpace agrees to toughen age control. (2008, January 22). PBS Frontline. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline/safe/protecting.html
- The official school administrator’s guide to understanding MySpace and resolving social networking issues. (n.d.) http://cms.myspacecdn.com/cms/SafetySite/documents/SchoolAdministratorGuide.pdf
- Roberts, E. (2010, April 9). Students invited to give perspective on school violence. South Florida Sun Sentinel. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2010-04-09/news/fl-dff-mayorside-0408-20100409_1_school-violence-john-esposito-deerfield-beach-middle-school
- Saulny, S. (2007, March 22). On hitlists, anger finds an outlet. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/22/fashion/22HITLIST.html?_r=0
- Whitcomb, D. (2010, March 9). Cyber-bullying cases put heat on Google, Facebook. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/03/09/us-internet-bullying-idUSTRE6275UG20100309
- Zapf, K. (2008, April 28). Student victim of MySpace bullies. Pittsburgh Tribune Review. http://www.questia.com/library/1P2-11250592/student-victim-of-myspace-bullies