Display of Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace by Adolescents & Reducing At-Risk Adolescents' Display of Risk Behavior on a Social Networking Web Site
Megan A. Moreno, Dimitri A. Christakis, et al.
Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine
Vol. 163 No.1 January 2009
Scientists at Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington randomly selected 500 MySpace profiles belonging to self-described 18-year-olds in the U.S. to determine what sort of information the average teen was sharing online. Their conclusion? The kids are not alright. Well, half of them anyways. Nearly 54% of the selected profiles revealed details about risky sexual lifestyles, drug addictions and violent encounters with peers.
1. Cyberspace versus Reality:
MySpace boasts more than 200 million profiles worldwide, with one in four of those profiles belonging to someone younger than 18. As a result, the website has become what the researchers dub a "media superpeer" that promotes and establishes norms of behavior among teens. So as more kids openly discuss their sexual and drug experimentation, it becomes less and less taboo to join in. The article also notes that merely presenting oneself as a wild child invites "unwanted online attention from individuals such as cyberbullies or sexual predators."
2. On identifying displays of sex, drugs and violence:
Have you ever downloaded a picture of a gun or posted a photograph of Al Pacino in Scarface on your MySpace profile? Yes? You're violent. What about completing a sex survey and displaying the results? Or using a Playboy bunny icon to represent you? Well then, you're probably promiscuous. Is your profile picture one of you drinking or smoking? You're an addict. Evidently, this is how the study's authors determined which profiles displayed "risky behavior" and which didn't. Obviously, there are many problems with such an approach.
3. On altering online behavior:
After identifying 190 self-described 18- and 20-year-olds whose profile contained information about risky lifestyles or habits, Dr. Megan Moreno, one of the study's authors, sent messages to half of them about the dangers of sharing such personal details online. Moreno also provided information on regional testing centers for sexually transmitted diseases. Three months later, nearly 14% of the 95 teens who were contacted by Moreno had removed sexual references from their profiles, while just 5% of those who were not contacted took it upon themselves to clean up their accounts.
After listing MySpace's potential benefits (identity exploration, peer interaction, alternative social outlets), the researchers note its drawbacks, namely the tendency for teens to overshare personal information "in a globally public venue." Is that really the main problem here? That teens are practically advertising their vices? That they might damage their reputations? This study seems to imply that the oversharing of risky behavior is the problem, not the behavior itself. Moreover, the study's authors second-guess their own research by noting, and rightly so, that many teens or anyone who maintains a social-networking account for that matter don't always tell the truth when protected by a digital barrier. Perhaps more time should be devoted to studying the factors that inspire such behavior, rather than the various ways teens fess up to it be it online or off.
The Verdict: Toss