Like most parents these days, I know enough about technology to stay no more than five steps behind my teenage son.
Sure, I discussed with him the dangers of talking to strangers online, and yes, I limited his ability to instant message by putting the computer in a public spot in the house where my husband and I could stroll by and take a quick glance. And yes, I know what it means when he quickly types "POS" when we walk by -- that's "parent over shoulder" for those of you 10 steps behind.
But it wasn't until his high school sent home a letter warning parents about the dangers of social networking sites like MySpace.com, that I decided I'd better log on.
All this week, ABC News Radio is taking a close look at the popular and controversial Web site MySpace.com. You can hear these reports on your local ABC News Radio affiliate, check local listings.
A Warning to Parents
The letter said "inappropriate" photos and comments had been posted on the site. It went on to warn of the dangers of Internet predators, as well as the possibility that college admissions officers or potential employers could view kids' profiles.
The school was not banning kids from using the site -- legally it can't -- but rather offering up advice for parents so they could both be informed and guide their teens through the scary world of writing in a virtual public diary.
If you've been living under a rock or don't have a teenager, MySpace and sites like it are called "social networking spaces." They're user-generated; kids create the content.
They're given very simple tools to put up their name, address, things they like, things they don't like, music they listen to, basically the things that define them. That's called a personal profile.
From there, they invite other kids in to see their profile and chat online, and those friends invite others, and soon, your little social animal has more friends than you can invite to a Sweet 16 party.
The danger is that your child may not know who's coming to the party. Internet security expert Robin Raskin, known as the "Internet Mom," says kids are letting too much hang out in cyberspace.
"The interesting thing about the profiles is, kids usually do them after they're tired, after a busy day at school, after they're stressed, competitive, so everything's hanging out. Their hormones are raging. It's late at night and they put everything up there," she said.
Protecting Kids From Themselves
Some of it is true; some of it, shall we say, is embellished. Think of it as the days of bragging in the schoolyard. Kids today are bragging online. It's a virtual hangout, and when they're not talking face to face, it's a whole lot easier to boast about how much beer they drink, or how many times they've shoplifted or had sex, all in a bid to appear cooler.
When kids freely give out their personal info and post provocative pictures on their profile, that's when the predators start calling. Raskin says finding easy prey takes no time at all.
"I just want to look and say, 'Gee, who's out there that's 18, lives in Pennsylvania, goes to college, and is kinda loose about their name and address?' That would take me exactly 10 seconds."
Her advice for parents: "Go into these sites, register as a user -- this is not a closed world, you can go in. And once you're a registered user, you can see profiles, tell your children you're there."
Chances are that once your kids know you're hanging out where they're hanging out, they'll clean up their act. At the very least, have your child lock his or her profile. Locked profiles only allow friends whom they have invited to communicate with them to visit. And yes, I tried to access my son's profile. Such a good boy, it was locked.
Freedom to Blog?
Some schools have banned kids from blogging.
Pope John the 23rd High School in Sparta, N.J., made headlines when it banned kids from using MySpace. The Rev. Keiran McHugh says he called an assembly and told students they were not to post profiles on the site either at school or at home.
"There was tremendous support from the parents once they started to discover and see the kind of material that was on the spaces. They said, 'Wow.'"
Students like Alyssa Lohr were outraged at first, but then, when faced with the concern about predators and character assassinations, she reconsidered.
"I realize it was probably the right thing to do because girls are starting to get hurt and meeting people on MySpace that they don't even know. And it is becoming really dangerous."
Can a School Ban Blogging?
Kurt Opsahl, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says a private school can.
"Students are protected by the First Amendment," he said. "Though it is important to recognize that the First Amendment protects you against public school censorship, it protects you against the government. So activities by a private school come under a different scenario."
Opsahl warns that while free speech may allow you to write and post anything you want today, you may regret it later.
"People should realize that everything they say on their blog can be read by millions of people," he warned. "The people they intend it for as well as anybody else who comes along. And it may be archived for many years even after their thoughts and opinions may change."
Who Knows and Who's Profiting
Another sobering piece of news for kids. Raskin said that "college admissions counselors and guidance counselors and law enforcement officials all use this as a tool now."
Tell your kids that, just like the old paper version of a locked diary, anything they don't want anyone to see should be locked up tight.
In its defense, MySpace says it employs a dedicated team that does nothing but look at all 1.5 million images uploaded each day, checking for inappropriate photos, including pornography. Despite its best efforts, MySpace says, some illicit images still get posted online.
In the two years since it was launched, MySpace has received 2.5 times the traffic of Google, with more than 50 million registered users.
Last year, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought MySpace for $580 million in cash. Because it caters to a demographic with lots of cash to spend, marketers are beating down the door trying to cash in.
One twist: TV producers are creating MySpace profiles for fictional TV characters.
FX's "Nip/Tuck" recently revealed the identity of its serial rapist known as "The Carver." Before he was unmasked, the character had his own blog that viewers could log onto to learn even more about the character than was revealed on TV.
Marketers are also teaming up with TV producers to create original Web content, hoping to generate buzz among the generation that spends. Fox has announced that it will produce original episodes of its hit show "Family Guy" exclusively for the Web. Because Fox is owned by News Corp., you can bet Stewie will soon be blogging on MySpace.
And consider this: Just when you thought you'd never be able to pry the cell phone out of your teenager's text-messaging fingers, a new service called MySpace Mobile is expected to launch this spring. That's right, no computer needed. Teens will soon be blogging in between (we can only hope) their classes.