Just before we put this book to bed, we took a couple of days to travel to Washington, D.C., to help moderate a one-day conference on social-networking safety sponsored by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Panelists included law enforcement leaders, leading pediatricians, online safety experts, the Attorneys General of Connecticut and North Carolina, the CEO of Xanga, the Chief Privacy Office of Facebook and, for this first public appearance since taking the job, Hemanshu Nigam, the chief security officer for Fox Interactive, the parent company of MySpace.
The day saw some lively and sometimes contentious discussions. One safety expert advised parents not to let kids under 17 use services like MySpace except under close parental supervision. Both attorneys general called upon the industry to voluntarily restrict access to only those who are over 16 and to enforce that by using age verification. All this despite the fact that John Cardillo, CEO of Sentry, a leading provider of identity, background and age verification, explained that while verifying the age of adults might be practical, it is impossible to verify the ages of people under 17 because there are no publicly available records that can be used to confirm their identities.
We also heard from John Draper and Christopher Le of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline who said that referrals from MySpace users have become the largest source of calls to the hotline. Increasingly, kids are using their profiles "to in some ways convey that they had suicidal intent," said Draper in a followup interview. "There is very much the potential for saving lives because the first people to hear about kids at risk are other kids." The federally funded organization is setting up suicide prevention profiles on MySpace, Xanga and Facebook. We don't know how many lives can be saved as a result of referrals through social networks, but it's certainly something that should be thought about by policy makers seeking to restrict teens' access to these sites. This is just one powerful example of how monitoring teen social networking can be much more beneficial to teens than banning it.
The attorneys general who spoke at the Washington meeting are far from the only elected officials calling for government regulation of social networking. As of June 2006, there was already at least one piece of pending federal legislationthe Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, which would restrict social networking on school and library computers, as if that were actually where the danger lies.
It is easy to understand why politicians would want to regulate MySpace and similar companies. After all the scary news stories, regulation might seem like a way to protect children from "unlawful sexual advances, unlawful requests for sexual favors, or repeated offensive comments of a sexual nature from adults," as the Deleting Online Predators act phrases it. While these elected officials are certainly well-meaning, if we've learned anything from our research for this book, it's that banning social networks not only won't make kids safer, it will actually put them at greater risk.
We understand public officials' concerns and applaud them for thinking about our children's safety, but we also urge them to fund research and carefully study the issues before passing laws or filing lawsuits. To us, it seems too early to pass a law concerning social networking. There's too much we don't know and much research to be done, which makes legislation at this point seem reactive and uninformed.