There is a brilliant TV programme has been airing two weeks in a row here in England on Sunday and Monday nights. It is called Trial and Retribution and this week’s installment involved a murderer using the internet, specifically chat rooms to contact his victims. His victims were young, school girls using the internet service. He would identify himself as a young man, display an image and entice the girls to meet him, when they met, he would kill them.
I have known about internet crime for years and used chat rooms on and off for about 9 years. I have never been very comfortable in chat rooms as I am aware of how easily one can be tricked. Recently while looking for like minded people on MySpace to talk to, I have found myself in a MySpace chat room on more than one occasion. Watching this programme made me think long and hard about my experience in the chat rooms on MySpace and how it would be so easy, especially as a younger person to be tricked in such a virtual venue. I decided I would do a little investigating of my own to see what happened in these chat rooms if I stuck around and read what users were discussing.
I started my investigation by going back to the chat rooms on MySpace into the film-makers, screenwriters and actors section. I knew of an existing problem that infects the entire MySpace chat arena. No one talks about the subject that the room is set up for. Conversations in the film making section ranged from idle conversation to discussions about hobbies, and most frighteningly and frequently about various sexual positions, sexually oriented questions and preludes to cyber sex. I was concerned to see that members of the chat room profiles said their ages were from 13 to 35 and everything in between. There seems to be a rather large dosage of 14, 15 and 16 year old girls.
MySpace needs to own the problem of the chat rooms. They are not being used for the purpose for which they are setup. The chats have no named moderator and from the profanity used in the chats, no moderator took control or asked anyone to mind their language. This means that anyone, no matter their age could access MySpace, create a profile and log in to one of these chat sessions where they are exposed to the afore mentioned conversation and worse. The worse part includes offers from people like “Any girls want to chat” and when they answer they go to private IM so that what is said is not in the view of the room.
During my investigation I participated in a chat with another user of MySpace, a female 18 year old. She was talking to a male 17 year old and when he left she remarked to me that “ohh..he had a nice stomach” she was referring to the image in his profile which depicted a male’s mid section, muscular and attractive. I asked her a simple question “How do you know it was his stomach?” To this question she replied, “Good Question.” She didn’t really know, and at the time it did not appear that she had in any stretch of the imagination think he might not be who he claimed to be.
The problem is clear. The Internet is the Wild West and a perfect hunting ground for internet predators. Parents can only protect their children so far as they can access the internet just about anywhere. One of the methods used to catch the bad guy in the drama this evening was a police officer posing as a 16 year old girl in the chat room. The environment of the chat was identical to this MySpace situation down the subject of the room. I think this would be a good precaution to employ on a continuous basis, have a constant police presence in the chat rooms some labeled and some under cover.
The only way for problems like this to stop is to place limits on MySpace users dependant on their age. This will of course be a sloppy fix because anyone can lie and say they are 16 or 18 when they are 14. It is as simple as changing the year of their birth and kids are smart enough to do this. It is the responsibility of Myspace to deal with this problem and to see to it that safety protocols are in place to protect the young and naïve. Doing nothing is not an option.