Teens are at risk on MySpace

by: Jerry Liao

No doubt social networking sites are the “in-thing” nowadays. More and more people are joining this kind of sites to gain more friends or to stay in touch with friends and relatives. Some enterprises are even using these sites to communicate with co-workers and customers.

But while it is very popular, we cannot ignore the danger it poses to its users especially to teenagers.

In a pair of related studies released by Seattle Children’s Research Institute and published in the January 2009 issue of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, researchers found that 54 percent of adolescents frequently discuss high-risk activities including sexual behavior, substance abuse or violence using MySpace, the popular social networking Web site (SNS).

The studies, Adolescent Display of Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace, and Reducing At-Risk Adolescents’ Display of Risk Behavior on a Social Networking Web Site, were led by research fellow Megan A. Moreno, MD, MPH, MSEd, and Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, and the University of Washington.

In their study Adolescent Display of Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace, the research team found that 54 percent of the MySpace profiles contained high-risk behavior information, with 41 percent referencing substance abuse, 24 percent referencing sexual behavior and 14 percent referencing violence. In the study, females were less likely to display violent information than males, and teens who reported a sexual orientation other than “straight” showed increased displays of references to sexual behaviors. Profiles that demonstrated church or religious involvement were associated with decreased displays of risky behaviors, as were profiles that indicated engagement in sports or hobbies.

What can parents do? Here are some tips:

1. Know What Your Child is Doing Online: Communication gadgets and the online life they make possible 24/7 are ever present, and they have become essential tools. Teens readily access the Internet from phones, any time. Children are “first adopters,” but parents should keep up with them to be able to know who they are, what they’re doing and the choices they’re making. Even if your child is the one teaching you about technology, you’re still the parent.

2. Ask Questions and Set Limits: Be involved in your child’s life, which includes their online life. Ask questions, set limits and look at their online profiles periodically. Start early with these discussions, when your child begins to use the Internet on their own. Ask about their displayed events, favorites and friends. “Tell me about your friends at school?” should now include “Who are your online friends? What are online friends saying about you on the Web?”

3. Discuss How the Information Can Be Used By Others: Discuss with your child how different people might view their displayed information, such as friends, their friends’ parents, teachers, future employers, college admissions counselors, relatives and even strangers who may be dangerous or have bad intentions.

4. Support, Don’t Criticize: Whenever discussing your child’s online profile, focus on their safety and well-being, not on your judgment. Watch for any information that identifies them or helps others to find them. Discuss privacy settings. Help them think ahead and address possibilities.

5. Encourage Open Communication with Your Child: Encourage your child to tell you if something that happens online makes them feel uncomfortable.

6. You’re Not Snooping or Invading Their Privacy: Remember that it’s not an invasion of privacy to view your child’s online life. There’s nothing private about it; if it’s online for the world to see, there’s no reason parents shouldn’t stay on top of it. Sit with your child and “Google” their name together, so you can both monitor what’s online.

7. Set Up Your Own SNS Profile: Create and use your own MySpace or Facebook page so that you’ll know how it’s done, understand what it’s like and what it leads to. This can be a project you share with your child. Parents and children can list each other as “friends” and access each other’s Web pages. This may be easiest to do when starting these conversations early with younger children.

8. Talk to Your Child’s Doctor: Healthcare providers should be aware of SNSs and realize that they are a powerful tool for learning more about children and teens as well as successfully reaching them.

I just want to emphasize that the Internet and social networking sites are amoral – it’s not good nor bad, it’s how users use these technology and tools that makes it good or bad.

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