MySpace to Add Parental Alert System

News Corp.’s popular social networking site MySpace.com will soon offer parents a glimpse of what their teenagers are doing online.

The site, which is one of a group of social networking sites used regularly by more than half of American teens, has recently come under fire for inadequate security controls.

Children as young as 14 can use it, and many of them choose to invent online personas with fictitious information. MySpace is now facing lawsuits from the families of four underage girls who were sexually abused by adults they met on MySpace.

Since News Corp. acquired the site in 2005, the number of monthly MySpace users has grown to an estimated 60 million in the United States, surpassing even Yahoo.

Privacy Controls

The new software, code-named “Zephyr” and due to be available this summer, will allow parents to see what name, age and location their children are using to represent themselves in MySpace.

It continues to monitor that information for any changes, but it reportedly does not let parents read their children’s e-mails or see their profile pages on the site. Site users, meanwhile, are notified via e-mail that their parents are using the software.

“Our goal is to empower parents to engage in conversation with their teens about Internet safety, and this software tool is another step in our continued commitment to developing safety and security programs for our community,” Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer for Beverly Hills, Calif.-based MySpace, told TechNewsWorld.

“We believe that parents are the first line of defense when it comes to protecting teens in the offline and online worlds,” he added, “and they should have as many tools as possible to safeguard their families.”

Can You Prove It?

Currently, users who admit to being 14 or 15 years old are subject to a number of other controls over who they interact with online. For example, they are given a private profile that can’t be viewed by members who say they are over 18.

However, users frequently lie about their ages, a fact that prompted a group of 33 state attorneys general to demand that MySpace raise the minimium age requirement for joining the network to 16 and begin verifying members’ ages.

“Many of our safety features are built around age, and it’s important that people honestly reflect their accurate age while on our site,” Nigam said. “MySpace is always looking for new and better ways to ensure a safe user environment, and Zephyr is an important step to empower parents and initiate conversations about online safety.”

Less Than Enthusiastic

The addition of Zephyr to MySpace is receiving a warm reception.

“Parents have been looking for something that would let them know what their kids are doing online,” privacy lawyer Parry Aftab told TechNewsWorld, “and this software will allow kids to know their parents looking, so it preserves their privacy.”

The software will also encourage kids to use their real e-mail addresses, Aftab said, so they will be sure to receive any notification about their parents’ monitoring efforts.

Still, the software could have negative privacy implications if used by someone other than a parent — such as a spouse or roommate — and it might deter some teenagers from using the site.

“Kids won’t be thrilled,” Aftab admitted. “It will be useful, but I suspect a lot of kids will stop using MySpace.”

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