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Steven J. Klearman
Steven J. Klearman
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Myspace and Disclosure of Teen Risk

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I often borrow from D. Garth Sullivan, Esq. at Indox Consulting (www.indoxconsulting.com).

Here’s an interesting study about Myspace and the disclosure of teen health risks:

Social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, have become popular Internet venues for adolescent social interaction. Approximately 25% of the estimated 150-160 million users of MySpace, the largest site, are under age 18. Social networking Web sites allow users to create personal profiles, communicate with others, and join groups. Given that the adolescent developmental stage prioritizes peer relationships and identity exploration, the immense popularity of MySpace among adolescents may bring little surprise.

Personal Web profiles are multimedia creations featuring text, pictures, blogs, audio, and video all posted by the profile owner to represent his or her identity. Web profiles may be public and available to anyone on the Internet, or private and available only to those who the profile owner designates as “friends.”

Recent media reports have highlighted cases in which young adults posted information about risk behaviors, such as sexual activity and substance use, on their publicly accessible Web profiles and experienced repercussions of these disclosures. It is worth noting that posting risk behavior information on a public Web profile may place adolescents at risk, regardless of whether or not that information is valid. These risks may include unwanted contact and adverse reactions from potential employers, school admissions officers, and others. Another risk is that displaying risk behavior information on Web profiles normalizes risky behavior within the adolescent cohort and may encourage peers to engage in risky behavior themselves.

The goal of this study was to determine how common such health risk behavior disclosures were in the public MySpace profiles of adolescents who actively use MySpace. We also assessed the prevalence of display of personally identifying information, such as name, picture, and hometown. Posting both identifiable and risk behavior information creates additional risks to adolescents, as individuals may be targeted on the basis of the display of risk behavior information, then easily identified and located.

Results of the Study

Our results demonstrate that several important risk factors can be identified effectively and efficiently using publicly available Web profiles. Some sites also feature internal search engines that allow rapid identification of profiles displaying risk behavior. On MySpace, for example, it is possible to search for users who self-identify as drinkers and smokers. Further, social networking Web sites typically allow direct access to a large number of adolescents through email.

Educators and providers may also create or work through one of the thousands of groups devoted to health topics on MySpace. Previous studies have demonstrated that Internet approaches to modify behavior can be effective in older populations. Social networking sites may provide a new venue for identification, assessment, and interventions to prevent or reduce health risks.

An important factor to consider when viewing information posted on MySpace is that social networking Web sites provide no verification of any information displayed on individuals’ Web profiles. The validity of online personal risk behavior information has not been completely evaluated, but there are reasons to be concerned that such disclosures reflect either intent or actual behaviors.

Previous studies of Internet behaviors have shown that computer use often encourages self-disclosure and “hyperpersonal” information, which supports the validity of Internet self-report. Most teens reported that the majority of their online self-representation reflects their identity, but the presentation may not be entirely current. Previous studies have also shown that even on Web sites designed to promote identity experimentation and exploration, such as chat rooms, subjects generally evolved their online presentations to fit their own identities.

The Media Practice Model summarizes these findings by stating that adolescents choose and interact with media on the basis of who they are, or who they want to be, at the moment. This theory suggests that adolescent disclosures made on MySpace profiles reflect either actual behaviors or behavioral intent, both of which are of interest to healthcare providers, educators, and parents.
Limitations to this study include that, as described above, information displayed by profile owners, including ages, pictures, and behavioral descriptions, cannot be objectively verified. In particular, anecdotal reports suggest that teens frequently misrepresent their age on Web profiles in order to bypass security restrictions placed on the profiles of younger teens. We studied profiles within the class of 2008 group in an effort to improve the likelihood of viewing profiles of actual 16- and 17-year-old adolescents. However, targeting 16 and 17 year olds through this MySpace group biased our sample population to adolescents in school and who join online groups, limiting generalizability.

Finally, although our prevalences were stable between data checkpoints, this study conducted a detailed evaluation of a relatively small number of profiles compared with the total 11,000 available for the class of 2008 group. The results of this study nonetheless indicate that adolescents who are active users of MySpace regularly post health risk behaviors and display personal identification