SPECIAL FEATURE: by Gabrielle WalshNews Weekly
Personal web pages - the dark side of the internet
, June 23, 2007
The internet is an amazing means of communication spanning the globe, but it also has a dark side.
Chat rooms, blogs and social networking sites are causing parents great anxiety and, down the track, great embarrassment to millions of unsuspecting teenagers when they apply for jobs. Gabrielle Walsh
, national secretary of the Australian Family Association, reports.Chat rooms are where people can go online to a shared web site, type messages and "chat" with people anywhere around the world. Concerns about chat rooms arose several years ago.
The most extreme concern was illustrated by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
It reported that 89 per cent of sexual solicitations directed at youth occurred in chat rooms. Other reports have found that one in five youths aged 10 to 17 have received a sexual solicitation in the past year. It is estimated that at any one time there are at least 50,000 sexual predators prowling the internet, with chat rooms being one of their preferred haunts.Explicit language
The problem became of such concern that, in 2003, Microsoft shut down its MSN chat room service across 25 countries, although not in the US. This was because of the growing concern about the safety of children who visit these chat rooms that are full of sexually-explicit language, cyber-sex and sexual predators. Because of similar concerns, Yahoo also shut down hundreds of its chat rooms.
For a sizeable number of teenagers, there is another issue of concern. Many spend hours each day "chatting" with cyber "friends" they have never met in the flesh, and whom they only know from what they see on a computer screen. Such a cyber friend can be a real and honest person or they can be a fictitious persona; and there is no way to tell the difference.
Some teens become dependent on such "friends" and, in turn, compulsive internet-users. Their world of friends becomes an artificial reality that can be highly deceptive, unlike the real world where they learn the art of mixing and socialising with real people. This has become an issue of real concern to many parents.
Now, there are wider issues looming with personal web spaces, profiles on popular social networking sites and blogging sites. Almost overnight, these have become a teenager's rite of passage, particularly through social networking sites.
These sites connect young people by providing a forum to meet and connect with friends on the web. Participants each have their own personalised web pages devoted to themselves, their friends, family, hobbies, fantasies, with photos, graphics, sound and video. Personalised sites are as varied as the imaginations of the young people constructing them.
Depending on the site, young people can introduce themselves, make connections with friends (and strangers), add comments to each other's sites, host and swap photos, videos, music, etc. For many, it is a way of networking.
Many teens, especially girls, use social networking sites the way they once would have used a personal diary to pour out their dreams, hopes, loves, personal photos, comic videos, music, poems, scribblings of their youthful years, jokes or comments on friends.
Many contain the sort of highly personal details of a young person working through the issues of growing up. So personal and intense are many of these sites that they are often described as "diaries on steroids".
It is the very personal nature of these social networks that makes them so appealing to teenagers, and it is also what makes them appealing to online bullies, sexual and marketing predators, employers and voyeurs.
While the rules generally require that users must be 14 or older to set up a personal web site, there is no age verification and many pre-teens have set up their own sites. The primary hazards associated with social networks is that children/teens can reveal personal information that should not be publicised. For example, users of social networks should never reveal such information as first or last names, home towns, school names, street names or information regarding the specifics of their daily routines.
Many social sites give the young person the ability to restrict viewing to certain visitors via a login/password. However, teenagers are often casual about such security, and very trusting of people who ask them for passwords so that they can share the site. The lack of real security on these sites is a major problem.
Generally, these sites allow others in the person's network to make comments on each other's personal pages, perhaps as a blog or maybe a comment on a photo/video. While these can be edited or deleted by the owners of the web page, peer pressure can make the person reluctant to edit them out. And there is no control over photos, videos and other materials copied from one person's page to many other sites and then left open to comment.
Warning of this teenage phenomenon, Ryan Ferrier writing for rt-image.com
says: "It is not simply the ability to network that makes these web sites so wildly popular with young people. They offer, as well, a sort of glamour appeal. The concept of having a space dedicated solely to the user and their life, described in their own words and cataloged by their pictures, holds great appeal for the late 'MTV generation'.
"Finally - a screen on which anyone can be a star. And the only cost involved is the time it takes to complete a couple of mouse clicks and a few key strokes … Or is it?"What young people don't understand is that putting these personal details on the world wide web is like publishing their personal diary in an international newspaper, potentially capable of being read by anyone anywhere on the planet.
It has become standard practice for employers to scan the net to find all they can about job applicants. Employers can find positive material that can support a person's professional qualifications. Equally, they can find "digital dirt" that can end a young person's career before it starts.Rejected
According to management-issues.com
, a survey of more than 1,000 hiring managers revealed the astonishing fact that "half of those who have Googled candidates have rejected one or more based on what they found.
"More startling still, almost two-thirds of hiring managers who used social networking sites to research candidates have also been put off hiring people as a result."
Blogging sites are also under scrutiny. A blog site is like the letters page of a newspaper. It is an open internet page where people can make comments, run discussions and comment on anything.
According to management-issues.com
, "the head of content at UK digital consultancy Cimex [has] warned that blogging, in particular, represents a 'weapon of mass destruction' that could jeopardise the future of thousands of young career hopefuls
"'There is very little guarantee that a blogger can properly delete his (or her) adolescent ramblings later on in life,' warned Dan Williamson in a letter to the Financial Times
newspaper. 'Content may continue to haunt a jobseeker, thanks to cached pages on search engines and the blogging community's tendency to borrow content from other sites and republish it as their own,' he wrote.
"The ability to publish and distribute one's own thoughts and ramblings to millions around the world with minimal effort or cost is clearly an attractive premise, but more must be done to educate young web-users about the potential dangers."
Employers seeking to profile a possible employee can be influenced by racial and political views, objectionable jokes and graphics, negative comments about former employers, risqué photos and comments, bragging about excessive drinking or sexual exploits. Even innocent materials can cause problems.
Writing about his own experience, journalist Jared Flesher of the Wall Street Journal's
executive career site said that he had recently Googled his name and found that "the top two results were pages I'd rather possible employers did not see. One was a link to a page from the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division. My name is there only because someone posted a response I made to reader mail about an article on real-estate commissions. All the same, I'd rather not be associated with the matter.
"The other link is to a gushing article I wrote about an online game I used to play. Nothing scandalous, but recruiters might not know I wrote it when I was 14."
Flesher illustrates what many of the internet savvy Y-generation don't realise - what's on the internet about them, even seemingly innocent materials, can seriously affect their futures. Many career service organisations and university career advisors are warning students to clean up their "digital dirt" before they start applying for jobs. But that is easier said than done.
By the time a graduate is going for a career job, they may have forgotten personal web sites they had created and many blogs to which they had contributed years ago. While they can clean up their current personal web pages, they can't remove all their personal data on the sites of the people with whom they have networked over several years or from blog sites. That data remains out there in cyberspace and is virtually impossible to erase.
While a person may use a unique user login/password to limit access to their personal web site, ultimately that provides limited protection. There is no guarantee that all of a person's friends will remain friends or that friends won't innocently pass on a person's access code to others.
Hackers can crack into sites and copy material. Further, after years of blogging and swapping information among numerous people, a person's identity and personal details can be spread across dozens of sites. And web indexers and archivers such as Google cache web pages, and these pages can remain on the web even after a page or site has been shut down.
Just as reality TV programs attract a certain voyeuristic audience, the private details of many personal web pages make for a sort of "reality internet" for web browsers."Digital dirt"
The magnetic attraction of "reality internet" violates the logic of personal privacy. Hence, if people set up personal web pages to be viewed on the internet, then they can hardly charge others - be it a browser being entertained by "reality internet" or an employer searching for "digital dirt" on a potential employee - with violating their privacy.
As Anna Ivey - a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School - put it, "The Internet is about as public as you can get, so anything people post there for all to see is fair game. If you parade naked down Main Street, you can't accuse people of invading your privacy either."