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Can social networks protect your kids?

Here's a look at potential safeguards that companies may put in place in light of recent cases of alleged abuse and rape in youth-centric online communities.

Social networks catering to adolescents have a serious trust issue -- and justifiably so.

Location-based flirting app Skout and teen social-networking game Habbo were hit by reports that adults allegedly used their services to sexually prey on underage users, causing both sites to temporarily restrict access this week.

The incidents serve as a reminder of the potential risks that arise when a minor logs on to any social network, an issue that has gotten even more scrutiny with Facebook looking to possibly open its doors to users under 13. More importantly, it reinforces the notion that no network is truly safe, no matter the technology safeguards that are put in place.


Michelle Collins, vice president of the exploited children division for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said it's important for the online industry to make sure that social networks are safe, but it is equally important for parents to be vigilant and not rely solely on technology. Teens may not want to hear this, but parents need to be proactive in their children's social-networking lives.

"You can never know completely that the person at the other end of the conversation is a kid," she said.

Nevertheless, Skout and Habbo have quickly shifted into damage-control mode with attempts to reassure users and the media that it will improve the protection that it offers to its users. Both companies have said they are trying to upgrade their security measures, moderators, and technology.

Paul LaFontaine, CEO of Habbo parent company Sulake, did not respond to questions, but did post on the company blog, indicating that the company is working to "ensure that best-in-class moderation and detection systems are in place to create a safer and improved experience for our many responsible users."

Skout, likewise, has said it would look into upgrading its safeguards and take additional steps to protect its users.

Age limits
One protective measure is age limits, which Skout has said it would look into for its community. But the measure has long been debated within the industry, particularly because it's usually ineffective.

"It's a huge problem. In most case, it really doesn't work," said Chris Babel, CEO of TRUSTe, a company that helps online companies address privacy concerns.

TRUSTe is in the process of certifying Skout's safety practices. Skout said it currently monitors its app, bands inappropriate users, and never reveals the actual location, phone numbers, or e-mail addresses of users.

Babel said he could not comment on Skout's practices specifically, but in general, age verification uses the data of existing databases. When a user signs up for an account, they are asked a series of questions to determine identity. These questions can include year of birth, location, and name. Once answers are received, the data is bounced off databases, like the DMV, voting records, or credit reports, to look for matches.

Clearly, this sometimes-expensive practice is not a catch-all since children are usually not in many databases. Additionally, the technology needs a lot of data to be efficient, which means asking more questions.

"There's no foolproof way to do this which is still consumer friendly," Babel said, adding that companies would have to ask so many questions, it would likely deter users from signing up at all. This could be why Facebook only uses the technique of simply asking for an age when people sign up.

Collins said the online industry and law enforcement agencies have discussed age verification for a long time. She said is not familiar with the practices of Skout or Habbo.

"It's something that I think many companies struggle with," she said of age verification. "And, it's certainly even more of a concern, if their products are specially geared to children, to ensure that the individuals there are indeed kids."

These recent incidents with Habbo and Skout are not unique, Collins noted. For years and years, the Internet industry has been addressing child safety concerns.

Collins runs the center's CyberTipline, which collects reports of the sexual exploitation of children. Since it opened in 1998, the tipline has collected 1.4 million reports. Last year alone, the number was 326,000. Collins said she encourages people to use the tipline because reports are then sent to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

Babel said other ways to deter people from signing up with false ages is monitoring user behavior. For example, if a person signs up with one age on their profile, but then changes it to another age later, the action could trigger a red flag for sites.

Skout said it is already practicing this in addition to other safeguards. Skout is commited to a safe teen community and dedicates more than a quarter of its staff to community management and monitoring, the company said.

"While there are no perfect solutions, Skout has many mechanisms in place which include continual community monitoring, which is also supported by the self-policing efforts of their user community, to detect suspicious behavior," the company said in an emailed statement to CNET. "Additionally, Skout has advanced proprietary technology that continuously monitors activity to identify users who are behaving inappropriately or violate our terms of use (by registering under a false age, for example) and bans thousands of devices a month. Skout is building better safeguards and has partnered with a leading risk management advisory firm to enhance current security measures including age verification."

Call for change
Habbo, meanwhile, said the recent incidents should inspire broad change in social networks.

A screen shot of Skout's app for adults. The company started its teen app after teenagers started signing up for accounts in the adult community. Screenshot by CNET

"We would like to emphasize that the issues raised around the Habbo site are a challenge for every social media community," LaFontaine wrote. "We hope that the recent focus on Habbo's safety challenges will deliver a call to action to the many wholly unregulated social media sites that currently pose equal and greater challenges to the safety of legitimate user communities."

A look at the company's safety guidelines (which I accessed by logging into Habbo using my Facebook account -- note that I am not under 18 nor does Facebook think I am) shows that it encourages users to protect their identities and report abuse.

Ways to report abuse include reaching out to moderators or clicking the help button at the top right of the screen. Users can also ignore other users and ban users from a chat room in some cases, according to Habbo's guidelines.

On Skout's app, if its now-suspended teen version works the same as the adult version, abuse can be reported within a conversation window. Users can also block others from communication with them.

Collins said it is important to have mechanisms in place that allow for easy reporting. If reporting abuse takes too many clicks or the mechanism is too difficult to find, a lot of incidents will go unreported, she said.

Involved parents
No matter what technology is used on sites, the real safeguards will always be parents, Collins said.

This means parent communication with teens before and during the use of the site. In addition to warning young users that they shouldn't meet any of their online friends offline, parents should remind kids that they shouldn't send photos or other information. Collins said it's a mindset of "being very aware of what you are sharing with a person."

Babel agrees and said parents need to educate their children about risks.

"Just like there's risk walking down the street and talking to strangers," he said, adding that technology isn't the golden ticket.

Some of the teenagers cut off from their networks certainly feel that way. Among the cries of "This isn't fair :'( I was in a great relationship.. When will it be back??" and "u HONESTLY couldn't of given us a DAYS NOTICE BEFORE U COMPLETELY CUT US OFF ........... REALLY I now have no way to contact some of my friends THANKS," left on Skout's blog post regarding the suspension, were comments challenging the security upgrades.

"I think that risks come with ANY website regardless," wrote one Skout user. "We just need people with some common sense if predators are the concern. No matter what this site does, it is not..n-o-t gonna stop creeps. Just sayin. I think this websites staff is lacking some common sense. EVERY day, people fake their age to get on websites, and people pretend to be some one they are not. This isnt something new. Welcome to the world."

While teens understand the risks of the online world (or think they do), it's up to parents to make sure they avoid them.