Risky Behavior Prominent on Teen MySpace Profiles
News for Referring Physicians
Once upon a time, teenagers bragged about sexual experiences and weekends of hard partying in the school parking lot. Now, they're routinely bragging to the entire world - by posting their exploits on mega-popular social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook.
Like a lot of parents, Dr. Megan Moreno, a UW Health pediatrician with UW's American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, wants to know why - and what it means. For the last year, she researched public profiles on MySpace to determine what adolescents are revealing about their personal lives when it comes to sex, alcohol and drug use, smoking and violence.
Moreno looked at 500 randomly selected MySpace profiles of teens in 46 states. She found that half of them included some reference to sex, violence, or use of substances such as cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. Alcohol use topped the list (37 percent) followed by sex (24 percent) and tobacco use (13 percent).
In a number of cases, the teens claimed to have engaged in more than one of these activities.
"This is information people are hesitant to ask kids about," Moreno says. "But then you pull up these profiles that say 'Hey, I got wasted and I got laid last Friday.'"
Moreno studied profiles of kids who said they were 18 years old, even though she's aware that many may have actually been younger, claiming to be 18 to bypass MySpace's security restrictions.
"Somewhere else in the profile they say in obvious language 'Hi, I'm 16. Hi, I'm 10,'" she says. "Perhaps there's something in their psyche that says they would like to be 18."
Moreno believes some teens may be under the impression MySpace is a localized service, not global, and thus be unaware that the information they're posting is available to anyone with access to an Internet connection. Two hundred million Internet users have MySpace accounts, and a quarter of them are children under 18.
"When you look at the data, teens say the biggest influence on them is the media," says Moreno. "We live in a culture of 'American Idol' and reality shows where everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame. I think that spills over to teens who want to tell the world about their lives."
Moreno's next step will be to examine the MySpace messages more closely to determine if children are actually doing what they are describing.
"I'm interested in the number of kids who say they got wasted because they did, and the kids who say they got wasted and didn't, but may be interested in doing it," says Moreno. "Each of these groups needs a different kind of intervention. How do you get these kids together to talk about what happens when they get wasted and when should we intervene before a kid starts drinking?"
Moreno also sees the benefits MySpace offers teens.
"MySpace helps develop an adolescent's identity and create relationships with their peers, even if those peers aren't actually nearby," she says.
Rather than forbidding their teens from creating a MySpace profile, Moreno believes parents should put limits on Internet use and make sure the computer is in a shared area of the house. She also suggests that parents may want to consider making their own MySpace profile.
"What we often hear from parents and teens is that MySpace is this "teen world" in which adolescents are insulated and can do anything they want. This may lead to unsafe online behavior. I hope that our research studies will empower parents to use MySpace as a communication tool to get to know their child as well as provide guidance on safe Internet use."