By JULIA ANGWIN
When I was in high school, I spent much of my senior year polishing up the prose that appeared in the little rectangle next to my photograph in the yearbook.
Seniors could write whatever they wanted in that tiny space. We filled it with references to our favorite music and soft drinks, and our friends' names.
Teens aren't much different today. It's just that their yearbook equivalents are online at social-networking sites like MySpace.com. On their MySpace pages, teens list their favorite music and drinks, and add links to their friends' pages. Instead of signing each other's yearbooks, they post comments on each other's pages.
But teens can also meet up with strangers on these sites -- and that's where the problems arise. Young girls in several states have been sexually assaulted by men they met on MySpace, according to law-enforcement officials. The family of one 14-year-old Texas girl who was assaulted is suing MySpace in Texas state court for not providing adequate safeguards. And the site's sometimes-racy content is under fire generally for being an unsafe environment for teens.
MySpace says it doesn't comment on individual members' online or offline activities, and it declines to comment on the suit. The site has been beefing up security measures for its youngest users, 14- and 15-year-olds. It has also added privacy protections for all users and has started an educational campaign to help parents teach their children not to put identifying personal details on their Web pages.
Sensing an opportunity, many other sites have started promoting themselves as safer for teens. I decided to try out a few big names and newcomers to see if any are safer than the others. In one instance, I gave a site a false birth date in order to register as a teenager. In another, I gave a false birth date for my child. Here's what I found.
Setting up a MySpace profile is incredibly easy, which is one reason the site is so popular. Click a few buttons, answer some questions and you've got a rudimentary page. The site, owned by News Corp., allows you to keep some personal information, such as birth date and home town, private. But it automatically displays age, home state and zodiac sign.
Unlike most other sites, which give users a template for their pages, MySpace allows much more personalization -- which leads users to compete for attention. Many pages have elaborate background photographs, and many play music when you land on them. Some users also post provocative photos and use racy language. Many disclose their school and hometown. And as with many other social-networking sites, people who aren't members can view MySpace profiles as well.
The Los Angeles-based site also focuses on meeting new people. The front page of every profile lists details "About Me" and "Who I'd like to meet." Despite declining to describe who I'd like to meet, as soon as I joined, my inbox was full of emails, many of them from bands I'd never heard of or women in low-cut shirts, wanting to be my friend.
Then there are chat rooms. It was a little scary to be invited to join a singles group where the other people were 14- and 15-year-olds wondering why they had been invited to join. An older user warned the youngsters to leave the group because it was full of "net stalkers." Unlike other social-networking Web sites, MySpace does not post warnings in the chat rooms, although users can click on the "safety tips" link from most pages. And since I was invited to join the group, MySpace has started marking such groups as "mature" and prevents users under 18 from joining.
A Page of One's Own
A look at the visitor traffic at select social-networking sites. Figures represent unique visitors, in millions.
|JUNE '05||JUNE '06||PCT. CHANGE*|
|Percentage changes are based on unrounded numbers. Source: comScore Media Metrix|
MySpace has added a feature that lets users specifically block friend requests from bands, as well as people who don't know your last name. And the site is studying ways to make it harder for young teens to meet adults on the site. It recently added a feature that prevents adults from sending private emails to members under 16 whose last names they don't already know. But this hinges on the honor system. MySpace doesn't attempt to verify ages, so kids and adults who lie about their age can avoid these controls.
Additionally, MySpace says it aims to remove adult content from the site, and reserves the right to ban users who post inappropriate content.
"Our top priority right now is to find or build the right set of technologies that will make the Internet and MySpace safer for teens," says MySpace Chief Safety Officer Hemanshu Nigam. But, he adds, "whatever technical solutions we implement can only be successful if they're coupled with a mom or a dad teaching their teens how to be safe online."
Setting up a Xanga account is even more streamlined than setting up a MySpace account. Just a few questions, and you're ready to go. Xanga lets you choose whether you want your birth date and other personal information to be shown on your page. It also has three levels of protection for everything you post on your site. Private postings can be viewed only by you. Protected postings can be viewed only by your designated friends. And public postings can be read by anybody.
Xanga, which is oriented toward blogging, has just introduced a rating system where users rank the adult-content level on their own or other blogs. Xanga members cannot see EX, for "explicit," content unless they prove they are 18 by registering with a credit card or faxing some other form of identification. Users can also flag content on other blogs that, for example, contains underage nudity. Xanga says that as of July 11, users had submitted 109,978 ratings and 42,235 flags.
Overall, Xanga feels like a pretty safe space. In large part, that's because it doesn't offer private communications between members. If you want to talk to someone, you have to leave a public comment on his or her blog.
Xanga has a few social-networking-type features, such as letting people build profiles and link to their friends' profiles. But in an interview, Xanga.com Inc. Chief Executive John Hiler says the New York-based site won't add instant messaging, chat or other private communication features until "we feel comfortable that we could have safety features built into them."
When I went to college, the facebook was a pamphlet with pictures of every freshman, his or her name and hometown. Facebook.com was originally designed to bring that idea online, with students at various colleges, as well as alumni, faculty and staff, posting information on the site. It has since expanded to certain high schools and offices.
The nice thing about Facebook is that it restricts members to their own school or organization; the site tells if you belong by looking at your email address. Unless you specifically allow someone outside your school to become your friend, that person can't see the details of your profile. Within your network, you can put different privacy settings on each piece of information on your profile.
Setting up a Facebook profile was a snap. Using a free email address offered to all alumni by my college, the University of Chicago, I joined the school's Facebook community. With an email confirmation, I was able to join the community.
Immediately, I noticed a difference between Facebook and other sites. Because people are in a smaller community, they use their real names and the information seems less fantasy-related. (Although I did wonder if Paul Wolfowitz knew that his profile on Facebook describes his job as "chillin at the World Bank." The University of Chicago says the email address on the profile is valid but definitely doesn't belong to Mr. Wolfowitz. Mr. Wolfowitz confirmed that he didn't create the entry.)
Facebook encourages networking -- although on a limited scale. You can search for people within your university by age, degree program, political views and "relationship status." Like Xanga, the vibe of the Palo Alto, Calif., site is fairly innocent, with people listing their majors and student activities. Facebook Inc. Director of Marketing Melanie Deitch says that some people create fake profiles, but that most prefer to use their real names. And using real names encourages them to behave the same way online as offline. Users can report false pages by clicking a "report abuse" button, and the site says customer support responds to all potential abuses within 24 hours.
Hi5 started out as a site aimed at Indian youth and is now one of the most global social-networking sites. Setting up an account was simple, with lots of choices for privacy settings, including "hide age" and "hide location."
Like MySpace, Hi5 user profiles are viewable by non-Hi5 users, and Hi5 promotes networking among users. Users can email each other and search for users by age and relationship status. Still, Hi5 does seem to try to promote safety. Along with its privacy settings, in the chat rooms it prominently posts a list of safety tips reminding users not to provide personal data or arrange to meet online friends offline.
At the same time, the site seems to attract a pretty random cast of characters. When I joined the San Francisco group, supposedly for people who have the city as a hometown, I ran across a bodybuilder from Egypt and a Peruvian girl posing in her underwear.
Hi5 Networks Inc., San Francisco, says the site focuses on vetting member profiles more than policing who joins groups. Hi5 Chief Executive Ramu Yalamanchi adds that in groups, users have a measure of privacy: They can see each other's photos but not the rest of their profile. (Still, if you click on the user, you go to his or her profile page.)
Bebo is so popular in the U.K. that by some accounts it has surpassed MySpace there. It also has the most lax age-verification procedures of all the sites I tested. It says you must be 13 to register, but I was allowed to enter "my age is secret" instead of an actual date. Bebo says it has subsequently changed this feature to require users to enter a date.
I did appreciate that Bebo alerted me to enter only the first letter of my last name on my entry form or else it would appear on my profile page. It also automatically limits contact information to your designated friends and groups. At the same time, however, it doesn't limit private emails between members and allows them to call each other via Skype, the online phone service.
It also has a nice, clean interface, with fewer ads than Hi5. But like Hi5, Bebo doesn't seem to police its groups. To get some friends, I listed myself as an alumna of the University of Chicago. But when I perused other supposed alumni, I ran across a 13-year-old Latino girl from Chicago and a 17-year-old Puerto Rican rapper from Chicago, neither of whom appeared to be alumni. Now those people can see my profile and contact me.
Bebo Inc., San Francisco, says it is in the process of stepping up the policing of school groups to make sure that members are within the appropriate age range. Bebo also has hired British Internet security expert Rachel O'Connell as chief safety officer.
"It is our intention to make Bebo one of the most hostile environments for users with ill intent," says a spokeswoman.
Tagged promotes itself as a safe place for teens and lets only kids ages 13 to 19 join the site. In order to check out the site, I made up a birthday that would make me seem 16. While interviewing Tagged officials later on, I informed them of this, and they raised no objections. To make sure people don't sign up their friends without their knowledge, the site sends an email verification.
When I made it into the site, I was immediately bombarded by pop-up ads. Every single page was covered with ads -- I often ended up clicking on one when I thought I was going somewhere else on the site.
And the site isn't exactly strait-laced. The front page has chat rooms labeled "flirt room" and "dating room." The chat was wildly suggestive, and there were warnings at the bottom of the page: "Be Smart. Don't post personal information about yourself, your phone number, or your address in Chat."
Also, I wasn't able to make my profile as private as I would've liked. I went into my account settings and blocked people from sending me instant messages and kept my city private. But, as on MySpace, I couldn't prevent my age and state from being automatically displayed.
Like many social-networking sites, Tagged also offers software that imports member's address books onto the site. I decided to try it, by importing my AOL address book, but was shocked when two people in my address books started receiving emails from Tagged asking them to join the site. A colleague forwarded me several of the notes: "hey, i'm on Tagged Get on Tagged so we can talk! Julia."
Tagged Inc. Chief Safety Officer Louis Willacy says that I must have mistakenly checked a box that allows the site to send the emails. He also says the San Francisco-based company randomly monitors chat rooms to check for inappropriate comments and discussions.
In terms of privacy, Mr. Willacy adds that, unlike at sites like MySpace.com, nonmembers can't see Tagged members' profiles. And Tagged Chief Executive Greg Tseng says the company is trying to figure out how to unclutter the advertising.
Imbee is designed for kids ages 8 to 14 and their parents. Parents must approve their kids' registration, and although the site is free, parents must submit a credit card to validate their identity. To get into the site, I had to supply some false data: I registered as a parent and then set up an account for my daughter, saying she was 10 years old. In fact, she's not old enough to be eligible to join. As in the case of Tagged, I informed Imbee officials later on, and they raised no objections.
Imbee allows parents two levels of control for the kids' accounts: monitoring, which means parents are notified of changes and communication after it happens, and approval -- which means parents must approve the kids' messages and account changes before they can go through. I chose the slightly less draconian monitoring level.
But Imbee's privacy is so strict that the site felt strangely empty. You can't search for other members unless you already know who they are and they give you their Imbee profile name. And there are no groups or chat rooms. So unless you know someone else who is already on the site, there's really no one to talk to.
Imbee says it is working on ways to help kids talk to each other on the site. Already, Imbee mails business-style cards to kids who join, so they can tell their friends about the site. Jeanette Symons, founder and CEO of Industrious Kid Inc., the Emeryville, Calif., start-up that runs Imbee, says the company plans to build group sites where kids can interact safely around themes like sports or celebrities.
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After a week in the world of social networking, I came to some conclusions. Really young kids (say, under 13) probably shouldn't be on any of these sites except possibly Imbee. Slightly older kids might do best on Xanga, where opportunities for strangers to connect are limited but the site doesn't have the strict feeling of Imbee. And Facebook is the best option for high-school and college students -- because ultimately the Internet is safest when used for networking with people you already know, or might know, in real life.
—Ms. Angwin is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's New York bureau.