Social Sites & Age Verification

    May 17, 2007

There’s a constant drumbeat of pressure on social networking sites like MySpace to implement measures to reduce the possibility of children being targeted by those who might do them harm. Recently, news broke that thousands of registered sex offenders apparently had MySpace profiles.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and counterparts in seven states called on the company, owned by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., to hand over the offenders’ names and addresses.

Sources told the attorneys general that MySpace had discovered thousands of sex offenders on its site in an internal investigation, Blumenthal said. He did not give the identity of the sources.

One of the solutions proposed is to implement strict age verification measures on the users of these sites. Theoretically, such an approach would prevent adults from pretending to be children, and would also prevent younger members registering as being older to avoid age-based restrictions.

An interesting article by Jacqui Cheng, Why age verification won’t cure what ails social networking sites, pokes some holes in that theory. While verifying that an individual is an adult is at least possible by requiring various forms of identification issued only to adults, proving that an individual is a child is more problematic. Kids don’t have drivers licenses, credit cards, or other IDs. In addition, the ease of falsifying identification online is fairly easy. Credentials can be borrowed or stolen, and steps like checking a photo ID aren’t currently possible.

Beyond the ease of falsifying one’s age at time of registration, Cheng’s article also points out that “verified” identities can be sold.

Perhaps the biggest nail in the coffin of age verification is the statistic that in most cases where an assault occurred, age falsification wasn’t an issue:

in 95 percent of the cases in which a child was assaulted by an adult that he or she met online, they were well aware that they were speaking to an adult. Not just that, but nearly 80 percent of the time, they were aware of the adult’s intentions to have sex with them, and they voluntarily met up with said adult 83 percent of the time.

The real danger, it seems, is that age verification provides a false sense of security. First, it adds credibility to a potentially false claimed age, a sort of certification stamp that ignores the ease of falsification. Second, it may imply a sense of security to parents who don’t realize that children may be susceptible to being lured into dangerous situations by people they know are adults.

I think it’s inevitable that age verification steps will be implemented at social networking sites, and that the technology may improve a bit. And I’m sure that convicted pedophiles will be legally banned from such sites, just as they might be banned from frequenting schoolyards or playgrounds. But we should be careful not to rely too much on these limited steps, as they won’t be completely effective in keeping predators separated from their prey.