Legislative efforts to make Internet social networking sites safer may be lagging the market’s own incentives to do so, experts say. Social networking sites more restrictive about who may join and what information people may share are emerging for all ages and sexes.
The popularity of Internet social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, and others is evident in the numbers. MySpace alone had more than 114 million unique visitors from around the globe in June. (See tables.) That’s up 72 percent from the previous year, according to the Internet metrics firm comScore, Inc.
Wide Age Range
The visitors to these sites range from college students and middle-aged professionals to, increasingly, teenagers and preteen children. About 71 percent of online children ages nine to 17 years told Grunwald Associates in a recent study they visit social networking sites weekly. More than four million 12- to 17-year-olds visited Facebook in May, says comScore.
Unfortunately, the sites’ popularity has attracted predators hoping to engage underage children in real-world encounters. In addition, disgruntled students post damaging remarks about teachers, and teens digitally bully other teens.
Lawmakers and parents worried about young users being exposed to the seamy underside of online social networking have successfully called for legislation in California (see related story, page 6), Connecticut, Georgia, and New York to require sites to verify the ages of all their users, require parental consent, and/or retain data about what registered visitors do and see online.
The private market, however, is designing and enforcing security restrictions more swiftly than these bills can be enacted. Site owners are addressing these issues in order to continue growing in an increasingly competitive market.
Many social networking sites now post easily accessible “parent guides” and other information about safeguarding privacy online. MySpace.com even points parents toward books about protecting children at the site.
Sites aimed at young users are especially forthright about their safety measures.
For example, ClubPenguin.com, a site aimed at 8- to 14-year-olds, has won several awards for its child safety features, including a NetSmarts award from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The site boasts 700,000 paid subscribers and 12 million “activated users.”
Part of the site’s security comes from barriers to user entry. To register, children 13 and under must submit a parent’s email address, and the site emails the parent for verification. Full access requires a paid subscription and hence a credit card.
“When parents have to pay, that’s a powerful control tool,” said Adam Thierer, a senior fellow with the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, who noted most parents will pay more attention to a site that costs money to use.
Increasing Consumer Control
ClubPenguin.com offers parents the ability to restrict their children to “Ultimate Safe Chat,” in which children have to select greetings and responses from a predetermined menu. For “Standard Safe Chat,” filters scan for objectionable words, while live moderators ensure users stay polite.
Zoeysroom.com is even more exclusive, with paid membership restricted to girls age 10 to 14 with an interest in science, technology, math, and engineering. The yearly registration fee is only $20, but a Zoey’s Room representative confirms the identity of each registrant. Adults who wish to register must do so as a “Club Leader” for a fee of $250 and must agree to have their identities verified. All registrants must provide telephone numbers.
Restricted groups with common interests such as Zoeysroom facilitate safety efforts by making it more difficult for predators to play false, Thierer says. “You know your buddies much better there than you do in a wider space,” he said.
Potential investment and advertising dollars are another incentive for walled garden sites to keep their borders neat and pruned. In August, Disney Inc. paid $350 million to acquire ClubPenguin, with Disney President and CEO Bob Iger saying the site was especially attractive for its ability to foster parental trust.
Ad firms pay premium rates to market to specific child and youth demographics–and they want proof they’re reaching those demographics, not adults or others masquerading as such.
Thus a confluence of parental, market, and user forces are shaping new social networking sites that offer greater levels of privacy and security controls. In addition, existing legislation–especially the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)–requires sites targeting children to implement various security measures.
With these forces already increasing online security, analysts such as Thierer hope regulators will abandon age verification and data retention mandates.
“Age verification is almost entirely an empty gesture,” said Thierer. “There’s a wide variety of other, more valuable steps legislators could take, particularly in the area of parent education.”
No security system is foolproof, and parents have a responsibility to arm their children with information before letting them go online, even on a restricted membership site, Thierer notes. “There’s no substitute for talking to kids about online dangers,” he said.
Sharon J. Watson ([email protected]) writes from Sugar Land, Texas.