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Study: Risky behavior prominent on teen MySpace profiles

January 5, 2009

More than half of adolescent MySpace users mention risky behaviors such as sex, violence or substance use on their personal Web profiles.

That’s according to the findings of Megan Moreno, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, and other researchers who analyzed 500 MySpace profiles in 46 states to determine how young people use the Internet as a means of presenting themselves to their peers.

The study, along with a companion study on how to reduce such postings, is published in the January issue of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine. Moreno was co-leader of the study while a research fellow at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

According to Moreno, 37 percent of profiles mentioned alcohol use, 24 percent mentioned sex, 14 percent mentioned or implied they were involved in acts of violence, and 13 percent mentioned tobacco use. In a number of cases, the profilers claimed to have engaged in several of these activities.

“This is information people are hesitant to ask kids about,” she says. “But then you view these profiles that say, ‘Hey, I got wasted and I had sex last Friday.'”

While the study examined publicly available profiles of those self-identified as 18 years and older, Moreno believes many profilers were younger, and claimed to be 18 to avoid MySpace security restrictions. Two hundred million Internet users in the world have MySpace accounts, and 25 percent are under 18. Moreno says kids may be using the site to attract attention.

“Previous studies of teens say the biggest influence on them is the media,” she says. “We are 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.”

Despite her findings, Moreno supports MySpace as a useful tool for youngsters who want to create relationships and share common interests with peers. She encourages concerned parents to begin their own MySpace accounts.

“What we hear from teens and some parents is that MySpace is this world where teens are insulated, they are safe, and they can do anything they want,” she says. “More and more evidence shows that this is not true. However, rather than just restricting access to the site, parents can use MySpace as a way to be more involved with their child’s life and provide guidance on safe Internet use. “

A second study highlighted a new way in which MySpace can be used to promote safe Internet use. Moreno and colleagues viewed profiles from a single zip code in one of the lowest-income census areas where teens had a greater tendency for risky behavior. According to Moreno, teens reduced the mention of risky behaviors on MySpace profiles if they received a single e-mail from a physician, advising them about the dangers of displaying such information.