As first dates go, this one wasn't terribly original: dinner and a movie, followed by a lot of time in a parked car. The two teenagers, who in mid-May chowed down at a Whataburger in Austin, Texas, before going to see Mission: Impossible III, certainly weren't the first guy and girl to meet on MySpace. And they are far from the only members who have fibbed on the hugely popular hangout site--her profile bumped her age up a year while he allegedly posed as a high school senior. But what makes the Texas encounter unique is that the 19-year-old guy, Pete Solis, got arrested for having sex with a minor, and the 14-year-old girl, whose name has not been released, sued MySpace for failing to protect underage users from online predators.
The lawsuit, which is seeking $30 million in damages, comes on the heels of another headline grabber in which a 16-year-old honors student in Michigan flew as far as Jordan before her parents realized she was planning to rendezvous with--and marry--a West Bank man she had met on MySpace. With countless parents now wondering what kind of liaisons their kids are forging online, law-enforcement agencies and elected officials have begun to step up their efforts to get teen-laden networking sites to improve their safety measures. Attorneys general of 22 states have called on the sites to set more boundaries for interactions between users, and this week Congress is scheduled to hold two days of hearings on how to make the Internet safe for kids. Executives who operate these sites acknowledge the concerns but say they lack the ability to monitor millions of daily exchanges and can't even verify members' ages. "There is no technology or national system that exists that allows us or any Internet company to verify the identity of people online," says Hemanshu Nigam, MySpace's chief security officer.
For parents who have only a passing knowledge of MySpace, let alone the ever multiplying horde of competitors like Xanga, Facebook and Bebo, it may be hard to understand why kids flock to these sites and how they can be more dangerous than old-school chat rooms. The reason: in chat rooms, predators have to engage in conversation to get to know people. But on sites like MySpace, they can access gobs of information by reading users' profiles, which tend to include photos as well as blog entries and bantering with friends. "It's totally addictive," Hannah Kranz, 16, says of MySpace. "My cousin gave it up for Lent." Kranz, who lives in Ferndale, Wash., says she interacts only with users she already knows offline and feels secure because, as she explained to her parents, the site lets her accept or deny an invitation to be someone's friend--and thus control who accesses the full content of her profile. Some kids, however, eager to appear popular (MySpace tallies the number of friends each user has), post bulletins asking everyone to befriend them, a practice, Kranz says, that is known as "whoring yourself." With nearly 85 million MySpace users and free accounts being opened at the blistering pace of more than 250,000 a day, it's difficult to keep track of who is responding to those solicitations.