By Anayat Durrani | InFocus News
“What type of kisser are you?” says the quiz on 17-year-old Sabina’s website showing a pic- ture of a topless woman lying atop a bare-chested man. Sabina’s own photograph shows her posing provocatively on her bed as Pakistani music plays in the background. In her blog, Sabina describes how she likes to take long drives with Hassan. Hassan, whose photograph is among the more than 100 friends who frequent her site, posts, “This is a picture of you on a bed, do you know what you are doing to me?”
Ashraf, 17, is wearing a t-shirt that reads “Math Major (I love nice figures).” He writes that his interests are “girls” and interacts with more than 200 friends, mainly girls, also pictured on his site that post messages to him. His high school and location are also listed on his page.
Ayesha, 18, is pictured on her web site scantily dressed, with the song “Promiscuous” by Nelly Furtado playing in the back- ground. Her site contains a graphic poem about sex, the male organ, and losing your virginity.
Sabina, Ashraf, and Ayesha all have two things in common; they are young Muslims who are members of MySpace.com. A place for friends’ is how the hugely popular social networking site has marketed itself to its worldwide users. MySpace members can carve out their own personal space on the Internet, complete with pictures and bio, and expand their circle of friends. While the site has attracted millions of users, it has drawn criticism over what many regard as dangers that lurk within these kinds of Internet sites.
The site integrates web profiles, web logs (blogs), instant messaging, e-mail, music downloads, photo galleries, classified listings, events, groups, chat rooms, and user forums. Member “Sumiyia,” 20, pictured wearing a Muslim headscarf, joined two years ago because her friends were members. While her Islamic-themed space demonstrates she is careful in what she posts about herself, she said most of the teen profiles she has come across “have been considerably less than appropriate Islamically.”
“What many Muslim youth don’t realize is that this can always come back and haunt you,” said Sumiyia. “I personally try to post as few personal pictures and as little personal information as possible in order to keep myself safe on the Internet.”
Bilal, 14, joined to connect with friends online. His space is a shrine to Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant. He put his age as 20 because “if you’re younger than 16, only friends can view my profile.” Furthermore, by showing his age as 20, his profile is publicly accessible without requiring users to login.
Bilal’s parents know that he uses MySpace, but they are not fully aware of the dangers. “All I know is that you can have your own website type thing and message to people,” said Bilal’s father. “I told him not to go to anyone’s page that he didn’t know.”
It is precisely younger aged kids, along with their parents, that organizations like i-Safe, a leader in Internet safety, seek to educate. Through schools and outreach programs, i-Safe educates children and parents about the dangers of social networking sites. “It is imperative that parents recognize that advances in technology pose threats to their children,” said Erica Carlson of I-Safe.
The increasing concern of how Muslim youth are using these websites has prompted some to take action of their own. The Islamic Center of Hawthorne is one of the few mosques that have actually taken steps to address this widespread problem. The Al Huda School at ICH recently sent letters to parents after reports of “Islamically inappropriate” MySpace accounts surfaced among its middle school students. ICH also organized invited guest speakers to its youth group to discuss their usage of MySpace.
Heba El-Haddad, a graduate student in Clinical Psychology who was one of guest speakers at the ICH youth group, said, “The comments on these websites were hard to fathom coming from Muslim youth.”
“Some of the youth, when asked what their parents would do if they found out about their websites, boasted that their parents had no idea about them, or even how to use the Internet,” said El-Haddad.
Ahmed Azam, one of the founders of ICH and a professor of Information Security at Devry, said that the pictures youth have posted of themselves have blown him away. “You will be shocked. Some of them are completely unexpected.”
These children have created dual identities, and don’t realize that their “space” is the real thing, he said. “At the masjid they will wear hijab, but on the Internet, they will be half-dressed.” Azam, who talks to kids “all the time”, said these kids enjoy the fact that their parents are clueless of this “other world” and that they can chat unsupervised. This is precisely why he urges parents to educate themselves and foster open relationships with their children.
Shaikh Yassir Fazaga, Imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo explained that the widening genera- tion gap is a large cause of the problem. “It is not an issue of immigrants alone, even people who have been born and raised here have a large generation gap with their chil- dren.” Parents must make tough choices, he said. “They are spending time to keep up a certain lifestyle, at the expense of their quality of life.”
The real dangers of posting personal information online were highlighted by Amber Lindsay, Communications Coordinator for the NetSmartz Workshop at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“Predators use the blogs, where children describe their daily lives, as ways of gathering background information and use this information to initiate conversa- tions with them,” said Lindsay. “In many circumstances, parents could learn more about their child on their blog than hiring a private investigator.”
MySpace, bought last year by News Corp. for $580 million, has indeed had its share of incidents. In March, two men were arrested in Connecticut and charged with having illegal sexual contact with young girls, an 11-year-old and 14-year-old that they met through MySpace. In mid-June, a 14-year-old girl from Austin, Texas sued MySpace and its owner, News Corp., for $30 million, saying a 19-year-old man she met on the site sexually assaulted her. Earlier in the month, a 16-year-old girl who tricked her parents into getting her a passport flew to the Middle East to be with a 20-year-old man she met through MySpace. U.S. officials in Jordan convinced the girl to go home.
MySpace does provide safety tips for parents and children and has a large staff that monitors the site. “MySpace is committed to innovating new prod- uct features to heighten online safety, particularly for 14 to 15 year olds,” said Hemanshu Nigam, who leads security efforts for the company. He added that MySpace was also involved in “education and collaboration with law enforcement, teachers, parents and members.”
MySpace enacted a change in policy in June: users who are 18 or older can no longer request to be on a 14- or 15-year-old’s friends’ list unless they know either the youth’s e-mail address or full name. However, users under 18 can still make such contact, and MySpace has no means of verifying that users submit their real age when registering.
Cyberbullying, identity theft, and getting into trouble with controversial words are more of the hazards that exist, said Lindsay. “Some students who those who have posted inappropriate com- ments about school personnel have also been disciplined.”
Still, the Internet can be a positive place to “work, play, and learn,” insists Danielle Yates of GetNetWise/Internet Education Foundation, a neutral coalition of industry experts and public interest groups advocating for education and awareness.
“Parents need to teach children good computer hygiene early on and encourage their children to talk to them about what they do online, who they talk to, and, more importantly, if they are ever approached by strangers or feel uncomfortable,” said Yates.
“The Internet is a tool,” Fazaga added. “Whether it is halal (islamically acceptable) or haram (islamically unacceptable) depends on how it is used or abused.”
Note: There are many alternative social networking websites besides Myspace that your children can be using. These can include Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and many others.