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Hidden dangers of social networking

In a technologically advanced world, staying connected with friends and family is often on the minds of college students, and social networking sites are one of the easiest ways to do so. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and dozens of other social networking sites have grown in popularity since their inception in the late 1990s. As they have grown, however, their rules and regulations have become more sophisticated in light of serious online predator and cyberbullying problems. But, when thinking of internet intimidators, housewives generally don’t come to mind.

Nevertheless, on Nov. 26, a St. Louis mother, Lori Drew, was convicted of three misdemeanor charges for accessing computers without authorization after a “harmless” MySpace hoax drove Megan Meier to commit suicide in Oct. 2006. Drew is now facing three years in federal prison and $300,000 in fines.

In the nation’s first cyberbullying case, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, where MySpace’s headquarters are located, accused Drew of blatantly violating MySpace’s terms of agreement in order to monitor Meier online, whom she suspected of saying “mean things” about her own daughter; furthermore, Drew had prior knowledge that Meier suffered from adolescent depression and suicidal tendencies.

Drew, with the help of her daughter and a teenage assistant, created and actively used a false MySpace account under the pseudonym of 16-year-old “Josh Evans.” Over four weeks, they engaged Meier in friendly, online relations, only to have “Josh” abruptly end the relationship, claiming that Meier was a “mean, backstabbing girl” and that “the world would be better off without you.”

Hours after the last message from “Josh” was sent, Meier was found hanging by a belt in her bedroom; she later died from her injuries at a hospital.

Two years after Meier’s death, Drew’s defense attorney Dean Stewart now claims that she is “a victim of circumstance” because of the “nastiness between teenage girls” and that the case should never have been brought to trial because, while the events were tragic, “nobody reads the fine print on service agreements” anyway.

Ultimately, Drew was the adult in the situation, and facilitated the events that led to the unnecessary death of a 13-year-old girl. She should be ashamed of herself for teaching her own daughter that such actions are not only rational, but acceptable. Drew’s apathetic attitude toward the whole ordeal is unnerving; it is a weak and far-fetched defense to excuse her from any responsibility simply because she, like most social networking users, was too lazy to read the fine print, and did not take the terms of agreement seriously.

While the details of this case are appalling, and the actions and behavior on Drew’s part are disgraceful, this landmark case does raise questions and concerns about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act cited by federal prosecutors, and how it may now affect these sites and its technologically-savvy members. While this case is extreme, it is more than just another “cautionary tale” about the dangers and safety concerns over social networking sites.

It is unclear what the future holds for social networking users in the wake of this case. Adding extra characters or symbols to a name probably won’t have the Feds knocking down doors, though it does technically violate the eligibility clause found in most terms and conditions described in online contracts. However, just to be safe, users should consider reading the fine print more thoroughly the next time they download applications on Facebook or upload photos on MySpace, to insure that they do not become violators, and to protect themselves from becoming violated as well.

-Allison Morris, sophomore