Online Diaries: Too Much Information?
By Vicki Courtney
CBN.com Online communities like Xanga, LiveJournal, and MySpace are all the rage. As you probably know already, the sites allow you to create your own communities where you can share photos, journals, and interests with a network of friends ... and strangers. While the sites caution against uploading inappropriate comments and images, one glance at the sites indicates that few rules are being enforced.
I was tipped off to MySpace by a concerned mother who shared a heartbreaking story about a “good girl” in their youth group who had uploaded inappropriate pictures of herself on the site. She informed me that it was the new rage among the teens in her area to create online profiles with a photo album and journal. When the word spread about the girl in the youth group, most parents had absolutely no idea that such a forum existed. Many were further shocked to discover their own kids on the site.
Out of curiosity, I logged onto the site, created an identity, and ran a group search by plugging in the name of the high school where my own kids attend. I was stunned to find pictures of students downing vodka straight from the bottle, a popular girl posing in her black lace bra and panties, sexually crude remarks and comments posted that detailed weekend drinking adventures and some of the most offensive language I have ever heard. Many confessed on their profile with a “yes” when asked about drinking and smoking. Ironically, many also filled in “Christian” on the profile when asked about religion.
Some kids had more than five hundred friends with their respective thumbnail pictures that they had added to their home page. Some of the pictures were of girls baring cleavage or posing in thong underwear. I was struck by the cavalier and carefree attitudes that many of the students displayed on the site. It was as if they imagined that parents were somehow blocked from accessing the site.
Recent news accounts have reported that parents are not the only ones who are accessing the sites for more information about their teens. I recently read an account of a teacher at a private middle school in San Francisco who discovered that many of the middle school students were going onto the MySpace.com site and others like it during school hours and updating their profiles and blogs. She stated, “These sites are like a candy store for predators. Especially since the kids actually, truly believe that their journals are ‘private.’ They struggle with the concept that NOTHING is private about posting to the Web.”1
The school ultimately printed out a hard copy of the profiles of each and every student who had used the site during school hours and attached a disciplinary notice to it and handed it over to students and their parents. When confronted with a hard copy of their profiles, many of the students were shocked and angry that school officials had viewed their pages on the site. One student even accused the teacher of invading her privacy! The students actually assumed that it was impossible for adults to penetrate their perceived private online world! Perceived is the key word here. Nothing is private on the World Wide Web!
Another news account noted that these types of sites are the new hangouts for predators. A detective in Plano, Texas, said that in five minutes of searching Xanga, he found personal information about Plano children that a predator could use to get close to them. He said blogs quickly give predators information that would take weeks or months to gather from talking to kids in a chatroom.2 It wouldn’t be hard for a predator or stalker to put two and two together from the journal entries and pictures and track down victims. Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. Consider the following real-life account from a mother:
“I found a message in my [16-year-old] daughter’s MySpace.com mailbox from someone saying, ‘You are a doll. We should get together.’ I Googled the e-mail address he left, and it turned out to be a guy who produces pornography, specializing in teenage girls. He purposely left the message in the MySpace mailbox (password-protected), rather than leaving it as a comment [or post in her blog], where anyone could see it.”
The mother reported what she found to the local police department and to CyberTipline.com. “In less than a week, I received an email from the police detective saying he had spoken with a special agent from the FBI, and they wanted to look into this immediately.” Their research turned up an east coast news story about a girl being killed during a photo shoot set up by the porn producer in 2004. The person who had contacted her daughter through MySpace had just been found guilty of killing that girl.3 Had he not been locked up, who knows how many other gullible girls in the MySpace community might have become victims.
John Shehan of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children said, “If teens are there, predators are there too.” The problem is, you can’t always tell who the predators are. They know teen lingo and how ultimately to win their trust. They are masters at the game. Many times they pretend to be close to the teen’s age when, in actuality, they are perverted, dirty old men.
Let me note that I did find some wholesome profiles in my blogging research. I found teens whose blogs attested to God’s greatness, highlighted their favorite passages of Scripture, and restricted their friend list to real friends, many of whom shared the same values and beliefs. Their sites did not have high traffic and multiple postings from strangers because their goal was not to build a friend base of hundreds of online friends. Blogging in and of itself is not evil, but unfortunately there will always be those who choose to use it for evil purposes.
When it comes to the community blogging sites, perhaps it would be wise to remember that there is no “my space” or “your space” because all space is His space (say that one five times really fast). First Chronicles 29:11 helps put it into perspective: “Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the splendor and the majesty, for everything in the heavens and on earth belongs to You. Yours, Lord, is the kingdom, and You are exalted as head over all.”
If you decide to participate in an online community, keep the following tips in mind:
Make sure you have your parents’ blessing. If they give you a green light, give them a link to your site. For safety reasons alone, you shouldn’t be typing any thing on your blog that you wouldn’t want your parents to know.
Utilize the privacy controls and set your page to private. Your friends will still be able to locate you and send a request to be added to your friend list. Setting your page to private adds an extra level of protection. It sends a clear message to predators that you do not wish to be contacted by online strangers and that your purpose is to use the site as a means to communicate with your approved friends. Remember, this only adds a level of protection and is not 100 percent foolproof. If a stalker or predator wants to get on your site bad enough, they can pose to be a friend.
Never share your last name, school name, church name, city, phone numbers, screen name, e-mail address, or other information that makes it easy for strangers to identify you or contact you by another means (like in person!).
Read over your profile to see if you have disclosed information that would enable a stalker or predator to track you down. I know this sounds creepy, but try to view your blog objectively through the eyes of someone who may have malicious intent. You can never assume that only “good people” are viewing your profile.
Make sure your pictures are appropriate. Never upload pictures in swimsuits, pjs, or undergarments. Do not pose suggestively or seductively. It may seem funny to you, but those with malicious intent will misread it.
Limit your friend list to “real friends.” Who needs nine zillion online strangers as friends, anyway? If you ask me, it’s a cry for help, a flag to low self-esteem, and a sign that the people have way too much time on their hands—time that could be better spent with real friends in the real world doing good things.
One in five kids between the ages of ten and seventeen have been solicited for sex online.4 If anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable online, tell your parents! If you receive a sexual solicitation, copy and paste it in an e-mail and send it to CyberTipline.com.
Remember that information you delete never really goes away. The pages are archived and many are accessible free of charge to the public. Archive.org has a feature called “Wayback Machine” where you can enter a URL and it will list dates from the time the site was created to its current status. Clicking on a date will transport you back to what the page(s) looked like from the time the site was created. Every time you post something online, it is like leaving a trail of bread crumbs for anyone who might want to trace your journey back to its starting point—even though you are long gone! Keep in mind that many colleges, employers, and other organizations are searching MySpace for information about potential students or employees and may utilize this feature—it’s cheaper than doing a background check!
If you decide to post your diary online, just remember that it becomes an open book, available to anyone in the World Wide Web network, which, the last time I checked, is a network of about 938,710,929 people.5 If the thought of mom, dad, grandma, teachers, youth minister, boyfriend’s mom, neighbors, school officials, potential employers, a slew of strangers, and countless creepy predators reading your diary makes you a little squeamish (or A LOT!), you might consider going back to the old-fashioned diary with a lock and key.
Editor's Note: Check out this listing of alternative online communities that provide a safe place to connect with Christian teens.
For more stories like this one, sign up to receive CBN.com's Family Wrap-Up in your email every Friday.
About the author: As a past agnostic and feminist, Vicki bought into the world's formula for liberation only to emerge empty and confused in her college years. During her junior year at the University of Texas in Austin, a friend invited her to a Christian conference for college students. It was there that she discovered that true liberation could only be found in Jesus Christ. She later founded Virtuous Reality Ministries® which reaches over 150,000 girls and mothers a year. She is the creator of VirtuousReality.com, an online magazine for teen girls, and college-aged and adult women. Vicki resides in Austin , Texas with her husband, Keith and three children, Ryan, Paige and Hayden.
Excerpted from Teen Virtue 2: A Teen Girl's Guide to Relationships by Vicki Courtney, copyright © 2006.
Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.
1. SafeKids Net Family News, 3 June 2005, www.netfamilynews.org.
2. Jennifer Emily, “Predators Reading Teen Blogs, Too: Some Schools Ban Access
to Web Sites,”
The Dallas Morning News, 4 May 2005,
3. SafeKids Net Family News, 26 August 2005, www.netfamilynews.org.
4. Crimes against Children Research Center’s Youth Internet Safety Survey.
5. See www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.