It’s 5 p.m. Do You Know Where On the Internet Your Child Is?

By Ariel Tirosh • May 5th, 2008 • Category: Pop Culture

[This story was written in David Alm's Basic Reporting class.]

On October 16, 2006, 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after being bullied on the popular social networking site MySpace. Six weeks earlier, Megan had found a friend in a young boy named Josh, whom she had met through MySpace. The day before her death, Megan received a message from Josh telling her that he would not be friends with her anymore because he had heard she was a bad person and was mean to her friends.

The next day, Megan called her mother to tell her about messages being posted on bulletin boards saying “Megan Meier is a slut. Megan Meier is fat.” Later that evening, Megan hung herself in her room. Megan’s parents later discovered that Josh was a fictitious character created by a neighboring family whose daughter had a falling out with Megan.

And Megan’s case is not isolated. According to a report published last fall by the Journal of Adolescent Health, which is sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cyber-bullying is on the rise. Researchers claim that although the overall number of cyber-bullying incidents is very small compared to incidents of traditional bullying, cyber-bullying had increased 50 percent from 2000 to 2005. The report approximates that anywhere from nine to 34 percent of adolescents nationwide have been victims of cyber-bullying within the two months prior to the release of the study.

Bullying has always been a normal part of adolescence. But cyber-bullying has taken the problem to a whole new level. In the past, a child could escape her peers just by leaving school grounds. Now, children are often bullied in school and online. Not only has bullying become easier and more widespread, it also now comes with the option of anonymity. Bullies can send instant messages with fake screen names or use fake MySpace accounts to harass a peer.

However, cyber-bullying is only one of the many dangers that parents fear about the Internet. Websites like MySpace and Facebook allow adolescents to network with strangers from around the world and put their information up for people to see. Both have been criticized by parents and child safety groups for not doing more to block sexual predators. Child psychologist Dr. Judy May warns that “Websites such as MySpace and Facebook make it easy for predators to have access to adolescents because it allows for conversation with a diversity of people.”

MySpace has been linked to dozens of incidents around the country where predators created a profile to get in contact with an adolescent and then arranged a meeting with them. Some of the cases have led to arrests and several civil suits against MySpace.

Another problem with many Websites accessed by adolescents today is content. According to a study by Family Safe Media, 90 percent of eight-to-16 year olds have been exposed to hard-core pornography sites, mostly while doing homework. There are 26 children’s characters names that link to thousands of porn sites when entered into a search engine, including Pokemon and Action Man.

However, pornography is not the only content-based danger for adolescents. Miss Bimbo, a Website that targets adolescent girls and tags itself as a virtual fashion game, is also raising red flags among parents. On its home page, Miss Bimbo challenges users to “become the hottest, coolest most intelligent and talented bimbo the world has ever known!” Some of the goals of the game include maintaining a steady weight (127 pounds), getting a job, and getting a billionaire boyfriend. Users can play games for bimbo dollars and IQ points. They are told to “stop at nothing,” even “meds or plastic surgery,” to guarantee that their characters complete all of the set tasks.

Originally launched in France in 2005 as Ma Bimbo, the site has garnered harsh criticism from parents, teachers, and child protection organizations. Parents criticize Miss Bimbo for preying on adolescent insecurities and claim that the game imposes standards of how girls should look and act. Bimbos are encouraged to go out to parties and drink. Users can play a game called French Kiss, where they have to kiss as many guys as possible in a bar to win bimbo dollars. When they run out of money, users can send text messages costing $2.34 or use their Paypal accounts to transfer money in. In France, one father threatened legal action against the Website after his daughter ran up a £100 tab without his knowledge.

One of the creators of the Website, 23-year-old Nicolas Jacquart, claims that the Website is “harmless fun.” During a press conference, he fought back against criticism, saying, “It is not a bad influence for young children. They learn to take care of their bimbos. The missions and goals are morally sound and teach children about the real world.

“If they eat too much chocolate in the game it is bad for their bimbos’ bodies and their happiness levels compared to if they eat fruit and vegetables, which reinforces positive healthy eating messages.
“If they are having problems with boyfriends or at work, the bimbos can talk through them with a psychiatrist. The breast operations are just one part of the game and we are not encouraging young girls to have them, just reflecting real life.”

Dr. May explains why adolescents are attracted to these Websites: “The adolescent may have low self-esteem and feel that what they have to offer is limited to their looks and how they are perceived by certain values in society.

“Since [adolescents] are still in the process of growing, physically and mentally, they are very susceptible to influence,” says May. She also explains that “adolescents are searching for an identity, trying to find out who they are. They are also developing hormonally.” Peer pressure is also a huge factor in how children end up on these Websites. “Since peer pressure is the number one concern for them, these Websites are going to have a major impact,” says May.

Peer pressure is not the only problem with Websites like these. May also warns that these sites often cause adolescent girls to become more materialistic and superficial. And that young girls using these Websites become “dependent on what men think of them or how they imagine men will see them.”

Many research institutions and parents’ organizations agree that children do not understand that these sites are dangerous and cannot use appropriate discretion when they go online. Speaking out against Miss Bimbo, Bill Hibberd, spokesperson for the parents’ rights group ParentKind, told reporters at a press conference, “It is one thing if a child recognizes it as a silly and stupid game. But the danger is that a nine-year-old fails to appreciate the irony and sees the bimbo as a cool role model. Then the game becomes a hazard and a menace.” May agrees, saying that parents should monitor what their children do online and need to explain the dangers. “[Parents should] discuss this with the adolescent and help them see it more clearly,” she says.

In the face of the relatively new online dangers, many parents and child safety groups are calling for harsher laws to protect children from cyber-bullying and predators. MySpace has reacted to concerns by hiring Sentinel Tech Holding, a Miami-based company that keeps a database of registered sex offenders in all fifty states. According to reports, MySpace removed over 29,000 profiles set up by sex offenders after the screening.

Parents are also pressuring Websites to put restrictions on what minors can do on their Websites and who can access a minor’s profile. Ever since Facebook opened up to the public last year, the Website has used various restrictions to help protect minors. For example, the profile of any member under 18 cannot be viewed by a member over 18 unless the two are confirmed friends. However, this protection only goes so far. Members can join virtually any group, even drug-related or sexually explicit groups. Chris Kelly, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, told reporters “We want to, by default, protect people, but if there’s a situation where younger users are reaching out, there’s only so much we can do.”

Although Facebook requires members to be at least 13 years old, and MySpace 14, this does not stop minors from lying about their age. In response, lawmakers in several states are pushing legislation aimed at protecting children by requiring such social networking sites to verify the age of every user and require parental permission for those under 18.

And some just want the Websites taken down. “My daughter used MySpace and her classmates harassed her until she refused to go to school anymore,” says Jean McLeoud, who has since moved her 12-year-old Jamie to a private school. “Websites like these are dangerous and should not be allowed to exist,” wrote Dr. Amy Jordan of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center on her Website. She added, however, that many of these sites are hard to take down because of the first amendment, even though “Americans recognize that exposure to much of this protected speech – for example, graphic sex or gratuitous violence – can be detrimental to children’s psychological, social, and physical well-being.”

(Cassandra Wong, Rashri Shamsundar and Eva Mfenyana contributed reporting to this story.)

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