Teens Act Risky on Social Sites like MySpace

According to recent research 54 % of teens who use the social networking site MySpace share information about sexual behavior, substance abuse or violence, which poses potential risks.

In the study researchers looked at 500 randomly selected MySpace profiles of 18 year old males and females in the United States. They found that 54 % of the profiles contained information on risky behaviors which included both words and photos, 24 % referencing sexual behaviors, 41 % referring to substance abuse and 14 % posting violent information.

Dr. Megan Moreno, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and one of the authors of the study said, "I was surprised, at least to some extent, at how clearly teens were discussing behaviors that we struggle to get out of them."

Study co-author Dr. Dimitri Christakis, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Hospital said that even if teens are only bragging about risky behavior this can still affect their future behavior. If the teens receive a positive feedback to their lie that may encourage them to actually carry out the brag for real he said. "We need to devise ways to teach teens and their parents to use the Internet responsibly," said Christakis.

In a second study Moreno and colleagues randomly selected 190 profiles of people between 18 and 20 who displayed risky behaviors, such as sexual information. The researchers then created a profile called "Dr. Meg," and sent an email to half of these selected profiles to warn them of the potentially risky information they had posted on their profiles. The email also gave them information on where they could get tests done for sexually transmitted diseases and other clinical resources. The researchers noticed three months later 42.1 % of those who received the email warnings removed risky behavior references as compared to 29.5 % of those who did not receive the emails. Almost 14 % of those who got the e-mail deleted references to sexual behavior, compared with 5 % of the others. "This was a creative and unique way to reach kids," said Kimberly Mitchell, a research professor at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

"It's important for parents to understand how important these social networking sites are to kids. They're here to stay, and they're not all evil. There can be some really positive aspects to these sites. But adolescents aren't necessarily thinking 10 years ahead, when employers or college administrators may look at these sites. Teens live in the here and now, so parents need to talk to kids about the longer-term impacts and help them think through some of the repercussions."

Vivian Friedman, child-adolescent psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham said parents should also use social networking sites such as MySpace as an opportunity to learn about their children's favorite movies and hobbies, as well as their top friends, she said. "You so often hear parents say 'I don't even know my kid anymore.' Here's a very easy tool to get to know your kid again," she said.

Another way is to get more involved in your children's lives say experts. "I tell parents that they should absolutely create their own MySpace and Facebook page," said Christakis.

"It's really not that MySpace is bad or good. I think the lesson is that it's a tool, and how you use it determines the kinds of outcome you're going to get," Moreno said. Results from the two studies appear in the January issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.