This story could have easily had a very different ending.
A 15-year-old girl, who was lured away from her Bartow, Florida home by an online sex offender, was found safe hundreds of miles away in a Wal-Mart store.
The teen told police that William Joe Mitchell left her in the store outside Tallahassee after telling her that he would kill her if she attracted attention.
Three days later, 46-year-old Mitchell was nabbed by police at a truck plaza in Winchester, Virginia.
The young teen told friends that she met Mitchell through the web site MySpace.com where she thought she was chatting with a 24-year-old whom she loved and planned to run away with.
Instead, her suitor was Mitchell who had been living in Jacksonville, Florida since being released from prison for the 2002 rape conviction of a girlfriend’s 13-year-old daughter. He also has a long criminal history including accessory to armed robbery, escape, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, grand theft auto and extortion.
The outcome was quite different for Taylor Behl, a 17-year-old Virginia college student who was laid to rest on her 18th birthday in 2005. Police believe she met her 38-year-old killer in an internet chat room.
Online social networks have rocketed in the past five years, now engaging more than half of all American youth ages 12-17 who profile themselves with pictures and information in an effort to reach out online with others. The Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that older teens and in particular girls, are most likely to be drawn to social networks. Of those who have created online content on MySpace or Facebook, 70 percent are teenage girls.
Pew says, among teens with their own profiles, about 66 percent limit access to its pages.
Sexual predators are known to solicit connections with teens through online social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. MySpace acknowledged it had detected 29,000 registered sex offenders on its site, and those were the ones who signed up using their own names.
Unfortunately when New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s office had investigators pose as minors on Facebook, they were solicited by adults asking “Can you send a nude pic?” as well as other solicitations including:
• “u look too hot....... can i c u online (webcam)? im avl at . . .”
• “i'd love to get off on cam for you hun ; P”
• “do you like sex?”
• “if u want call me [number deleted] or u can give me ur number?”
• “call me if u want to do sex with me [number deleted] ok”
When these complaints were brought to the attention of the company by investigators posing as concerned parents, Facebook often ignored the complaints, according to the AG’s office.
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been asked to outline all of its user safety procedures and to submit complaints regarding inappropriate content. Facebook may be in violation of New York laws for misleading public statements that assure the public that it protects participants from inappropriate material.
After many requests from several attorneys general, News Corp, which owns MySpace (under Fox Interactive Media), said it feared it could be violating federal and state laws if it handed over data on its subscribers. MySpace soon reluctantly agreed to kick out registered sex offenders from the site and provide data on them using a program called Sentinel SAFE, which mines data on members.
Conneticut’s AG said there are at least 5,000 registered MySpace sex offenders.
The problem of on-line predators may not be Zuckerbergs for long. Last year he received an overture from Yahoo for $900 million to buy the company, which he began at Harvard in 2004.
Parents can still influence their children
Pew Research finds that filters such as Net Nanny and CyberPatrol have grown significantly in homes with teenage internet users. More than half now use some sort of filter. That is probably not a bad idea because more than half of teens surveyed, 64 percent, said they do things online that they would not want to tell their parents.
Author, Gregory Smith has written “How to Protect Your Children on the Internet” – A Road Map for Parents and Teachers (Praeger Publishers, August 2007). Parents writing reviews on Amazon give it five stars. His Web site www.protectkidsontheinternet.com offers some of the following suggestions:
- Never let an elementary school child have an email account
- Trust no one, not in private or public school (Mr. Smith went into a school library and logged on through a second grader’s account. Within 60 seconds he was able to access hard core porn)
- Your children do not have the right to privacy from you regarding their online activities
- Teens often have more than one e-mail account. Families should set rules of one email account per family member and know all of their kid’s passwords
- If you allow your kids access to social networking sites, monitor their content and conversations with software such as PC Tattletale
And you might sign up for your own MySpace account. That way you can fully understand the language of social networking.
If you haven’t done so, now is definitely the time to talk to your teen about pornography. Tell them what pornography is, what words to avoid and to never click on any link that is suspicious. Never assume your child understands the dangers of posting personal information online. If a child feels uncomfortable, encourage them to recognize those feelings and not be drawn into something suspicious. As a parent, don’t overreact – the child is much more likely to confide in you if your reaction is in check.
CBS News has a parents guide to protecting children online including advice on keeping the computer in a public place in the home so teens and children know they can be watched at anytime. And if you’d like to check up on what sites they’ve been visiting- CBS suggests you search folders for “cookies” that might come from adult only sites.