Parents, Beware Kids Space on Internet

Everyone needs their own "space." It sparks emotional and spiritual wellness, medicates the inner sense of self-concept and self-esteem, and allows time to rest and regroup from the demands of today's ever-challenging world. However, after a recent sojourn I took to the adolescent-laden Web site, I have to wonder if -- in this case -- having individual space comes at too high a cost.

For those unfamiliar with MySpace, the fourth most viewed site on the Internet in the United States, having a posting on the site is the hottest craze among young adults, teenagers and the even younger group of "tweens." To some of our children in these groups, being on MySpace is as essential as sporting the newest cell phone or having a portable DVD player to watch movies during the car trek home.

So what's the issue with this technology-based trend? The views I garnered during my informal fact-finding mission differ greatly, depending on where you sit.

To many students, membership in MySpace is harmless. It's simply a forum to post data about life happenings and pictures, make new "friends" via the chat rooms, use instant messaging options and download the sweetest music jamming the airwaves.

And, in concept, it is, indeed, harmless. Much like the diaries or journals of yesteryears that many of us kept under lock and key about our daily personal feelings while growing up, MySpace is a forum for personal expression and creativity. But, when dissected, it clearly is also much more.

Although the site claims to have a webmaster who patrols the technology domain, pages that have nude photos, graphic language and sexual innuendo are allowed and appear to be more the norm than the exception. This, coupled with provocative pictures of partially clothed teens and those showing what appears to be underage drinking and drug usage that I have seen stretch the very essence of our cherished constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Perhaps most disturbing is that interwoven among the countless html pages -- both the innocent and the not so innocent -- is a clear subculture or "underworld" where many of our youngsters seem to take on an alter ego. From my navigating throughout the site, the foul language and distasteful pictures aren't confined to students with a certain GPA, family composition or socioeconomic standing.

Another troubling find is the cyber bullying and rampant entries that sully the reputation of students' schools, classmates, peers, parents and even teachers.

And, although the site tells those under 16 years of age to "Go away," I know countless 12-, 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds who lie about their age and are daily users.

Although MySpace does allow our youth a forum to discuss feelings and problems, commiserate with each other and solicit words of support, its unregulated, unstructured and generally rule-less format opens a zone of danger to our children who don't understand the power of the free and uninhibited expression they are wildly wielding. It falls to parents and educators to teach and demand respectable and honorable boundaries that are defined with responsibility, integrity and a caring maturity.

I strongly urge all parents to get a better understanding of what constitutes individual "space."

Besides the harm and dishonor they bring to themselves, their schools, friends and families, and the scars of regret they may suffer in the future, our youth are open game for sexual predators lurking in cyberspace to take advantage of them.

Betty White is principal of Sacred Hearts Academy, an all-girls school in Kaimuki. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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