Social networking Web sites draw tens of millions of people looking to connect with each other via the Internet. But some users, especially young people, accidentally provide too much personal information that parents and child advocates say can put them in danger from predators. So industry executives and others are working to provide safety nets to protect underage users and others.
Twenty-one-year-old Erie Meyer is an avid user of social networking Web sites, where people post personal information and photos, and meet each other online. But she was surprised when she came across one particular profile on the site called MySpace.com.
"I stumbled upon my sister's [profile] by accident. I didn't know she had one. And, some things on it, I didn't like,” said Meyer. “It wasn't just things she had posted, but in her comments sections, where anybody can post (a message), there were things I felt were inappropriate."
Meyer's sister is 15 -- one year older than the minimum age for a MySpace profile. But, as Meyer can attest, some young people don't realize that pictures and writings they post are available to anyone with access to the Internet.
"I called her, and we had a conversation about it, and I asked her why this stuff was up there, and if she thought it was a good idea to have up there. And I let her know that, if I could find it, that meant anybody could,” explained Meyer. “She later decided to take it down (off the site)."
MySpace.com recently announced new safety tools. MySpace's 100-million users can now set their profiles to 'private,' allowing only their friends to access detailed information.
And MySpace users over the age of 18 must know the first and last names, or the personal e-mail addresses, of users under the age of 16, if they wish to contact them.
Mark Ginsburg is the president and co-founder of a similar networking Web site called Xanga.com. He says young people are becoming more aware of the potential dangers of revealing too much information, or portraying themselves inappropriately online.
"What we're hearing is that they -- teenagers, the people who use these sites -- and this should be a welcome message for parents who are concerned -- teenagers are concerned about their own safety, and they would like to feel that the industry is providing them tools (to protect themselves), is looking out for them," said Ginsburg.
Ginsburg was one of several social networking executives to appear in June at a Washington conference on Internet safety.
The increased oversight follows a rise in reports of minors being disciplined for posting messages or pictures that school authorities say are provocative.
Teenagers at a Christian high school in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia were suspended after the principal found risqué pictures and foul language on students' MySpace profiles.
There are also reports of sexual predators using the networks to contact young victims online.
A 48-year-old man is accused of using networking sites to find minors in the western U.S. state of California for sexual encounters. And a 19-year-old man in the southern U.S. state of Texas faces charges for engaging in sexual activity with a 14 year old he met on MySpace. He says the girl lied about her age on her profile. The girl's mother is filing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against MySpace.
Many users say the key to safety is personally knowing the people you are connecting with online. The site Facebook is for people who attended the same high schools or colleges. People are required to use e-mail addresses provided by their schools. They must also use their real names, not nicknames or screen names.
Chris Kelly is the chief financial officer of Facebook. "Because you exist in the community that already exists in your high school or college, you don't have a lot of opportunities to interact with people that you don't already know,” noted Kelly.
He says Facebook disciplines people who post inappropriate content.
"If you put something up that violates our terms of service more than three times, your account can initially be suspended and actually be kicked off of Facebook," Kelly said.
Farhad Alavi is a 28-year-old attorney who lives near Washington. He likes the exclusivity of sites such as Facebook and invitation-only sites, such as Small World.net.
"It's very obnoxious because, look, 'It's an invitation-only online community, which is not open to the public,' " he said, reading aloud from Small World’s Web page.
Alavi also uses Orkut, a Google-affiliated site that is very popular with his friends in Iran. Orkut also requires an invitation from a member to join. But, with a little ingenuity and money, it is possible to buy an invitation into Orkut's online community on auction sites such as E-Bay.
But, Erie Meyer says even open environments, such as MySpace, can be safe places to explore, if users take steps to protect themselves.
"It can be a cool tool for young people, but they also need to understand the dangers, and I think once they do, they can act in a safe way," said Meyer.
Illustrating that safety has its place, even in cyberspace.