IN THE Wild West that is the Web, social networking sites provide an opportunity for teens - and indeed people of all ages, though this seems primarily to be the domain of the young - to chat, to gossip, to flirt, to tell the cyber world all about themselves.
They also offer an opportunity for sexual predators and other criminals to hide their identity, their age, and their motive, and prey on the unsuspecting youngsters with whom they mingle on the Internet.
That online buddy who says he's a teen from Toledo could be a much older man with more than talk on his mind. Such a possibility has a lot of people worried, from parents to police and school officials.
So it is encouraging to see that MySpace will match the profiles of people using the site with a database of convicted sex offenders in this country, and delete those offenders' profiles.
It's an important step given the demographics of those using the site. According to a company that tracks such things, 12 percent or so of MySpace's users in October were under 18. Because of the way the statistics are gathered, it's possible that the number of teens is even higher.
And that 12 percent of the multitude of users of the popular Web site provide a vast pool of vulnerable youngsters among whom the unscrupulous can trawl for potential victims.
The database is a promising move to protect unsuspecting young users of the Web site, though with 46 states having sex-offender registries totaling more than half a million names, there is a discouragingly large database to build.
It isn't a perfect answer, partly because not all states allow the same information on offenders to be made public or agree on how that information can be used, and there's no verification of users' identities and ages, for example. But it is recognition that such sites must have greater safety codes built in.
We need to remember, of course, that no amount of technology is going to completely protect unwary teens. A predator may not have yet been caught and is therefore on no registry, for example. And there are important issues of privacy arising out of excessive intrusion into the identities of Web users.
Protecting teens who go on to social-networking sites like MySpace begins at home, with teens who are savvy to the dangers that lurk on the Web, and parents who monitor their children's Web usage to the best extent they can. The new technology on MySpace will help provide another layer of protection.
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