The majority of teens are posting information about sexual activities, drug use, and violence on MySpace, according to new research. Can warnings from adults make them clean up their profiles?
A pair of studies published this month in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine found that 54 percent of teens frequently discuss illegal or high-risk activities on their MySpace profiles. Researchers studied 500 randomly chosen profiles of American 18-year-olds and found that 41 percent referenced drug use, 24 percent discussed about sexual behavior, and 14 percent talked about violence. "The ones to me that were most surprising and most worrisome were the sexual references," said Dr. Megan A. Moreno, a lead author of the study. "[Girls would] say, 'I like a guy who brings me flowers and takes me to dinner and (if you do that) I might consider having sex with you.'"
Researchers said that parents needed to get involved if they wanted their kids to clean up their profiles. "We need to devise ways to teach teens and their parents to use the internet responsibly," said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the study's second lead author, "the 21st century digital divide separates too many clueless parents from their Internet-savvy children."
To find out how parents could intervene, a second study set out to see if a single adult adult intervention would make teens change their profiles. Researchers looked at 190 public MySpace profiles from a randomly selected poor urban zip code that described the user as an 18 to 20-year-old and described risky or illegal behavior. The user was sent a single MySpace message which read, "You seemed to be quite open about sexual issues or other behaviors such as drinking or smoking. Are you sure that's a good idea? ... You might consider revising your page to better protect your privacy." It was signed "Dr. Meg" and linked to the profile of Dr. Megan A. Moreno with information about her professional credentials.
After three months, the profiles of the group that received emails was compared to a control group that wasn't contacted. 42 percent of those contacted changed their profile to increase their privacy in some way, whether removing the content or setting their profile to private. According to the Associated Press, Moreno said the results show e-mail interventions were a successful way to reach teens and parents or doctors of teens "should feel very comfortable looking up" their children's or patient's profiles on social networking sites. Moreno said rather than being creepy or an invasion of privacy, reading someone's profile was just like reading a poster on their wall or a slogan on their shirt.
Though 42 percent of the contacted users did change their profiles, on closer examination, the results don't seem as encouraging as Moreno suggests. Twenty-nine percent of the control group increased their privacy settings without being contacted. Of those contacted, girls were most likely to remove sexual references, but as a whole only 13 percent decided to remove information after getting a semi-creepy email from "Dr. Meg," and only 10 percent changed their profile from "public" to "private." While an e-mail signed "mom" rather than "Dr. Meg" would probably have better results, it's still not clear that even with adult intervention teens will start taking online privacy seriously.