By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 4/29/2005 11:42:50 AM ET 2005-04-29T15:42:50

Marcy's 13-year-old daughter has a knack for switching computer screens or shutting the laptop when mom walks in the room.  Like in many families, the two often argue about whether mom has the right to see what her daughter is doing online. The conversation is never really resolved.

But a few months ago, Marcy's need to keep up with her daughter's Internet travels took on a new urgency when she found an unfinished message on the screen urging a friend to check out her daughter's picture on a special Web page her daughter had set up.

With that, Marcy made a discovery thousands of parents around the country are making -- teenagers are among the most active Internet bloggers, and many are posting pictures, names, addresses, schools, even phone numbers, almost always without their parent's knowledge.

"It blew me away," said Marcy, who requested her full name not be used.  "And I just lost it. I sat my daughter down and said, 'Do you realize how inappropriate and how dangerous this is? Here's your face. Here's the town you come from. Do you realize how many sick people are out there?' "

To see her daughter's site, Marcy had to sign up with a service named MySpace.com.  When she did, she found her daughter's page, personal information, and pictures. But she also found a list of her daughter's friends, and made another discovery -- almost all of her 8th-grade classmates at George Washington Middle School in suburban Ridgewood, N.J. had pages on MySpace. 

"And their pictures are very provocative," Marcy said. "There's shots with their butt in the air, with their thongs sticking out of it. They squeeze their elbows together to make their boobs look bigger."

One-third of students have blogs
Soon after, Marcy went to the middle school and talked with its technology coordinator, Mary Ellen Handy, who volunteers with WiredSafety.org.  Handy discovered that about one-third of her 250 students have  Internet blogs -- and only about 5 percent of the parents know about it.

"The girls are all made up to look seductive....Parents have no clue this is going on," she said.  "You think your kid is safe because they are in your house in their own bedroom. Who can hurt them when you are guarding the front door? But (the Internet) is a bigger opening than the front door."

Video: Too much information Blogs and their technology cousins, social networking sites, are all the rage among young Internet users.  About half of all blogs are authored by teenagers, according to a 2003 study by Perseus Development Corp.; and according to comScore Media Metrix, a majority of the top 15 sites visited by teens 17 and under in January 2005 were either blogs or social networking sites.

But it's what's on the sites that concerns Handy and other experts. A study of teenagers' blogs published this year by the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University revealed that kids volunteer far too much information. Two-thirds provide their age and at least their first name; 60 percent offer their location and contact information. One in five offer up their full name.

"I wonder if a lot of the bloggers are ... really cognizant that the whole world can read their blog?" said David Huffaker, who authored the study.

Experts interviewed for this article could not cite a single case of a child predator hunting for and finding a child through a blog. But there are cases of children being lured through other Internet services, such as chat rooms.

"I don't see why pedophiles wouldn't use this tool, if this is where kids are," said Ann Coulier of Net Family News.

Great source of friends
Blogs and community sites are a great source of entertainment and networking for teenagers. High school junior Mary Ellen Handy -- Mary Lou's daughter -- said most of her friends began blogging when they were freshman.

"You can meet a lot of people. I go to an all girls' school, and it's a great way to meet guys from other schools," Mary Lou, who opened her MySpace account at 15, said. While she's attuned to safety issues, "the sad thing is a lot of girls put their addresses, other personal information. So many people don't know what's going on how vulnerable they can be."

Because they need a user name and password to join services like MySpace, experts say that many teenage users assume the site is protected. "But then they put their school name in, or their school team name," said. Anne Collier, editor of NetFamilyNews. "They don't realize somebody could put two and two together and figure out who they are."

An 'attention competition'
Parry Aftab, who runs the WiredSafety.org program, says she doesn't think any blogs or community sites "out there are safe for kids." She says her organization gets complaints every day. "There are underage kids on every social networking site on the Net.  They are engaging in highly provocative conversations and doing things they would never do offline."

Because there are so many kid blogs -- about 6 million, Aftab estimates -- many authors try to outdo each other to get visitors.  Often, that includes provocative comments and images.

"It is an attention competition," she said. 

MySpace.com, which has 13 million users, says it has a strict policy of not allowing members who are under 16.  Spokesman Bennet Ratcliff says the firm immediately removes sites that are in violation of the terms of service, including any site with too much personal information. But many bloggers get around the rule by lying about their age. MSNBC.com found when browsing the site that on several pages, kids who say they are 16 later state in their personal descriptions that they are younger.

"People are taken off the site whenever they are found," he said.  Ratcliff wouldn't say how often that occurs.

LiveJournal, another popular site, allows 13-16 year olds to post.  Some 400,000 of its 7 million users are under 16, according to the site. Executives there say most people have a positive experience, and it plays an important role in helping young people find each other and learn to express themselves.  It does not screen user content, according to Kevin Krim, head of subscriptions services at Six Apart, which acquired LifeJournal earlier this year. 

"Like an (Internet service provider) or domain host, it's neither feasible nor appropriate for us to be playing a role as editor or censor or making judgement calls," Krim said.

But Huffaker said the sites deserve some blame for the release of personal information. In the sign-up process, many ask for e-mail address, for example. Merely asking the question urges kids to answer it, making them think revealing the information is safe.

Kids blogs can be positive
Handy said parents who discover blogs should try not to overreact and immediately shut off Internet access or community sites; there is a safe way to blog, she said.

"That is the first reaction parents have, to cut them off" she said. "But the kids know that, and they don't want to lose the Internet, so they don't tell their parents what they are doing.  And you don't want that. You want the lines of communication open."

She said parents need to be much more involved with their kids' computer use than they are. Many just turn on the Internet access and walk away. 

"If they are going to have a computer in the house, they need to be trained," she said. "You don't give a kid a car without proper training. This is just hazardous."

Sandra Calvert, a psychology professor at Georgetown's Children's Digital Media Center, and co-author of Huffaker's study, says parents shouldn't be dismissive of blogging. "(Students) are learning some basic programming skills. It's teaching them to be Internet savvy, how to make things, how to be creative." 

Krim offered a similar defense for child blogging.

"For every off-color picture you might find, you are also going to find a number of kids having really interesting conversations about their developing views of spirituality, what they think about war. Those are good things to be thinking about," Krim said.

What parents should do
While finding a blog can be jarring, Coulier said "the Internet presents a remarkable opportunity to parents and kids for a kind of partnership." Kids can teach their parents about the technology, while parents can teach their kids Internet street smarts, she said. 

But there are some basic steps parents can take to increase their child's online safety.

Use a password-protection feature that genuinely does limit access to sites, says Huffaker. Livejournal's Krim says one-quarter of the posts on the site are limited to "friends only."

But not every child will be that cooperative, Aftab says.  That's why it's also a good idea to occasionally search for your child's biographic information online. 

"Talk to your kids. Say 'I read this article, do you go to a social networking Web site? And if you are not sure, 'Google' the kids.  Search for their real name, their address, their telephone number, screen name, nickname." That's the best way to find any surprise blogs, she said.

That advice may or may not help Marcy, who says her experience of finding her daughter's blog left a rift in the relationship. She's concerned the girl may put up another site without her knowledge, using a name she wouldn't know. As a parent, she feels overwhelmed trying to keep up with each new Internet trend.  She's barely gotten used to instant message services, and now she has to worry about blogs. 

"I'm not sure there's anything that can (fix this), it is so difficult to police these sites," she said.  "How do you prove a kid is 16 or older?  Maybe information could come from the schools, newsletters that say, 'These are things kids are suddenly participating in online,'  But it is very scary, and you don't know who's hands this information is falling into."

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