State attorneys general target social networking sites

In the name of protecting teens from online predators, the nation’s “worst attorney general” – Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal – is leading a crusade to force social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to verify the age of its users. See today’s Wall Street Journal story, “Attorneys General Push To Shield Minors on Web.” As if more pestering by state AGs will protect kids from harm!

I debated Mr. Blumenthal on CNBC’s “Street Sense” yesterday. He insisted that he’s not seeking a heavy-handed government regulatory solution. Really? So what’s the call for legislation all about then? The plans for forcing MySpace et al. to verify the age of its users? And the calls and subpoenas from the AG offices to those sites? Nope, can’t see a heavy government hand anywhere.

Of course, no one wants sex predators targeting teens on the Internet — on MySpace, Facebook or anywhere else. But what Mr. Blumenthal and his fellow AGs won’t acknowledge is that they really can’t regulate these sites. If they are able to impose new barriers to joining social networking sites, many users will simply abandon those sites in favor of other sites. That could very well happen, anyway — MySpace has some 115,000 million members and Facebook some 35 million, according to the WSJ article, but people could tire of those sites in favor of others. Surely government regulation wouldn’t be an exciting new feature for users.

And another thing. People on MySpace and Facebook already have numerous privacy settings at their disposal. I should know — I have profiles on both sites. That’s where the role of parents becomes so important. Parents need to keep up with what their kids are doing on the Internet. Find out whether their teen has a profile on any of the social networking sites. Find out who are their online friends and what steps they are taking to withhold or shield their information from strangers. This could be a matter of asking — ask your teen questions. Or, I’ve even seen instances where parent and child are actually MySpace friends — they both have profiles! Ironically, Mr. Blumenthal has offered some very good advice to parents in his February 2006 press release:

I urge parents to vigilantly monitor their children’s Internet activity. Following a few simple rules greatly reduces the danger of kids viewing inappropriate material or falling victim to sexual predators: Never let children surf the Internet behind closed doors. Keep the computer in the living room or other area where you can easily monitor sites they visit. Restrict all surfing to when a parent is home. Warn children to never post personally identifiable information on the Internet.