Next week will see a number of moves by MySpace to try and protect young users, the New York Times reported today. The biggest change will be that users registered as over 18 years of age will be required to enter the full names or email addresses of users under 16 years of age in order to contact them. Usernames are sufficient to send a friend request to anyone in MySpace now. The obvious flaw in the plan is that ill intentioned adults can easily register as being of any age, thus bypassing the adult-child restrictions.
Additional changes to be made include a new ability for anyone to mark their profile page private and removal of advertisements for adult services like dating sites on the pages of youth users. Automatically making all profiles of users registered below the age of 16 might be more effective, but would likely make the service far less popular among children who enjoy meeting other children they do not know in the offline world.
There may be no definitive way to protect children online from adults who seek to harm them. It is also worth noting that, according to a 2000 study by the US Department of Justice (pdf) (or in HTML), 34% of US juvenile sexual assault offenders were family members of the victims. Education, parental guidance and deeper cultural change than is possible in the online world may be the only available solutions to the endangerment of children.
A debate over MySpace’s responsibility in these matters breaks out in comments, below.