MySpace.com hooking local teens

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MySpace.com is an online phenomenon that is gaining in popularity with teenagers both locally and nationwide.

Some observers say the growing fascination with the online community is opening young people to the dangers posed by Internet predators. They say the innocent nature of the Web site fosters a false sense of security.

But teens say MySpace is sleek, hip, cool and a great way to keep in touch with friends. And it is reportedly the fifth-ranking Web site on the Internet, getting more daily hits than Google.

Because of its immense popularity and the potential for MySpace members’ information to get into the wrong hands, schools across the nation, from Nevada to New Jersey, are warning their students of the pitfalls associated with the Web site.

Like an electronic yearbook, MySpace contains hundreds of thousands of high school students, college students and alumni that anyone can search by name, school, affiliation or ZIP code. Members create their personal Web page, or “profile,” where teens post pictures, information about themselves (such as their school, hometown, likes, dislikes, bands they are into, places they like to hang out, friends and hobbies) and online journals called “blogs.”

Recently, schools in Greater Portland have begun informing parents and students about the dangers of posting personal information on MySpace, information that police say could be used by Internet predators to stalk victims.

Too much information

“These kids just live in an age that parents don’t understand,” said Scarborough High School principal Andrew Dolloff.

Dolloff recently sent out a letter to parents explaining MySpace. In it, he asked parents to monitor their teens’ Internet use and talk to them about the dangers of putting personal information on sites like MySpace.

While perusing Scarborough students’ profiles, Dolloff found that some Scarborough students not only posted personal information – real names, hometowns, schools, sports teams and phone numbers – but also posted “provocative” pictures and casual comments about sex, drugs and alcohol.

“Once you’re on the Internet you’re providing access to anyone in the world,” Dolloff said. “You’re really opening the door.”

A similar letter was sent to parents of Scarborough Middle School students. Though MySpace asks that only teens 14 or older use the site, there is nothing to prevent children under 14 from lying about their age and signing on.

In a letter sent to parents dated Oct. 27, middle school Principal Jo Anne Sizemore wrote:

“Posting personal information, especially the kind asked for in the MySpace Web site, is extremely dangerous. This is not something that happens ‘somewhere else.’ We have students here in Scarborough and we know of others in Windham, Westbrook and other nearby towns, who have been stalked or who have arranged to meet strangers who have contacted them via the Internet.”

At North Yarmouth Academy, many underaged middle schoolers have been using MySpace. The Academy has talked to students about the dangers of the site in their advisory groups and informed parents of the problem, said headmaster Peter Mertz.

But it’s not just MySpace that parents need to be aware of, said Mertz. It’s Yahoo chat rooms, American Online Instant Messenger and overall prevalence of online “blogs” that parents need to be worried about.

Mertz advises parents to set down rules for their kids’ Internet use and treat going online the same as going out with friends.

“Going into cyberspace is the equivilant of going to Times Square and handing out your card,” Mertz said.

Reality of Internet Crime

Recently, the Windham Police Department has been working on a memorandum to inform parents that Internet crime is a threat and that seemingly “innocent” information that teens post on sites like MySpace could lead them into trouble.

“What seems like innocent fun could turn dangerous if a stalker is intent on finding someone,” Lt. David DeGruchy said.

In 2002, Windham police assisted in the arrest of Charles Gravenhorst, a New Hampshire pastor, after he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old Windham girl he met online through AOL Instant Messenger while posing as a 19-year-old boy named Justin.

When faced with an Internet crime, local police often work with the Maine Computer Task Force, a forensic lab that studies suspected predators’ hard drives to gather evidence.

The task force is also worried that teens might be posting potentially dangerous personal information on MySpace and have received numerous calls from schools with this concern.

Sgt. Glenn Lang, forensic expert for the task force, deals with hundreds of cases concerning Internet crime ranging from harassment to stalking, solicitation of sex and child pornography.

“Literally these kids are putting way too much information about themselves,” Lang said. “If they were putting the right things on there, it wouldn’t be a big concern.”

Lang is especially worried about teen pictures and blogs posted online that often detail places where they hang out and their real names and addresses and phone numbers.

Shifting focus

Lang said they have only received complaints of cyberbullying and criminal threatening connected with MySpace, but the potential for stalking and solicitation is there.

Though Internet crime is on the rise, none of these crimes are new, said Lang. The criminals have just found a new medium to commit the crimes.

The Task Force deals with many incidents of sexual solicitation a year, said Lang, where strangers set up meetings with teens or e-mail them obscene photographs.

Just last month, police arrested William Vogel of Scarborough who had allegedly been participating in solicitation through a Yahoo chat room. Capt. Bobby Stern of Cleveland County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina had conducted an undercover operation to expose Vogel. He later contacted the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department to assist in the arrest.

Internet predation has become a growing problem down south, Steen said.

“The Internet is a haven for child predators,” he said. “They can go online and be whoever they want to, and they study this and they know what to say when they get in.”

The type of undercover posing used to capture Vogel has been the primary tool of PervertedJustice.com. They are a nationwide volunteer organization that works with local police to expose Internet predators who try to engage in sexual liaisons with the juveniles they portray online. Since the organization formed in June of 2004, it has made 38 convictions in 23 different states.

Xavier Von Erck, director of operations for Perverted Justice, said MySpace is a growing target for Internet predators because of its immense popularity and detailed profiles.

“When a predator has information and access to the interests of a child, he can build from that a profile to work his way into their trust zone,” Erck said.

Erck also has concerns about sites like E-Crush.com or E-spinthebottle.com where kids “spin the bottle” online to meet members of the opposite sex in their ZIP code.

Local impact

Kevin MacKaye, a senior at Windham High School, said 90 percent of his friends and classmates are on MySpace. Kids talk regularly about MySpace at school, he said. MacKaye uses the site to promote his band RGP (Really Good Party). The band has their own Web site on MySpace where any member can listen to their songs or leave comments about the music.

“It’s a good way to connect with your friends and good way to show your interests,” he said.

Brenda Pennels of Windham is a parent who tries to keep tabs on her teens’ “My Space activity.”

“It’s probably pretty innocent, but there is certainly the potential to get out of hand,” she said.

She said she talks with her daughter and teenaged son regularly about not putting personal information on the Web. She is also concerned about some students’ photos on the site that she says are “a little too mature.”

“It was amazing to see just how much information is on there,” she said. “I remind my kids all the time that anyone can use this stuff.”

Linda Toppi of Windham, whose 15-year-old daughter Laura uses the site regularly, says MySpace is not as worrisome as Yahoo chat or AOL online because you need to be accepted as a “friend” on the site in order to post information.

“I think that kids enjoy getting to know each other better by the info they put on their sites,” Toppi said of MySpace.

She said her daughter is “very responsible” and asks her not to put out any personal information on the Internet.

“It’s something to do,” Laura said. “It’s not exactly meeting people. But you get to know people from school who you wouldn’t notice otherwise.”

Laura has only been on the site for a few months, but likes to check out new music, see friend’s pictures and post comments. It’s also an easy way to keep in touch with friends who have lived in other towns, she said.

She knows the danger of Internet predators, but says that, as long as you’re safe about it, those people won’t come in contact with you.

“The Internet is a pretty strange place,” Laura said. “You have to be certain of what you put down and make sure it doesn’t lead you to trouble.”

Myspace.com offers users a chance to build their own Web site, such as the one above, and make friends online. The site can be fun, but it can also be dangerous for some teens who put reveal too much personal information.

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