by Anne Collier
A professor of pediatrics said she was a little surprised by how much information about risky behaviors teens post online – information for all to see but that their doctors struggle to get out of them. In a random selection of 500 MySpace profiles of people who say on their pages they’re 18, Dr. Megan Moreno at University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her co-authors found that “54% of the profiles contained information on risky behaviors” – 24% of them about sexual behaviors, 41% about substance abuse, and 14% about violence, the Washington Post reports, citing a just-released study in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
“The good news,” the Post says, citing a second study by the same researchers, “is that a simple intervention – in this case, an email from a physician – made some of the teens change their risky behaviors” – a significant number, in fact. For their second study, described in the same medical journal article, the authors sent emails to half of the owners of 190 randomly selected MySpace profiles of people saying they were 18-20. They were signed by Dr. Moreno. “She called herself ‘Dr. Meg,’ identified herself as an adolescent medicine doctor and researcher, and urged them to check out her academic Web page,” the Boston Globe reports in its coverage of the studies. “‘You seemed to be quite open about sexual issues or other behaviors such as drinking or smoking,’ the message said. ‘Are you sure that’s a good idea? After all, if I could see it, nearly anybody could.’ The message invited them to consider revising their profiles to protect their privacy. It also raised concerns about sexually transmitted diseases and pointed them to a Web site offering free testing.”
And the response was? “Three months later, 42.1% of the ones who received the email had changed their profiles, dropping references to sex and substance use or moving their profiles from public to private,” the Globe reports. So does the New York Times in “A Note to the Wise on MySpace Helps.”
That’s great news. Besides rules and tools, which not all teens respond to positively, other means of changing risky behavior are emerging, such as this kind of targeted, relevant educational messaging and social norming (peers’ positive influence, as illustrated in a substance-abuse-prevention program at University of Virginia, Charlottesville). I think, as did Dr. Moreno, we need to get past the surprise adults have at teen risky behavior online. It’s not new, it’s just more public (which is a problem these studies help address), and it’s actually developmental behavior, since neurologists tell us that the part of the brain that understands cause and effect and the implications of actions, the frontal cortex, isn’t fully developed till people are in their early-to-mid-20s. Which is why, child development specialists say, risk assessment is a primary task of adolescence (and why adult guidance needs to be in the picture).
There’s a lot more good thinking expressed or linked to in the Globe article, including:
* The view from Dr. Michael Rich of Children’s Hospital Boston that “social-networking sites [are] venues where young people channel their images and ideas, connecting with peers as they try on different identities – the way their parents might have done on the telephone. Where they can get into trouble is believing what they put on their profiles remains anonymous, outside their circle of friends,” the Globe paraphrases him as saying. See also related articles in this same (January ’09) issue of Archives, including It also links to an editorial in the same issue of Archives by the study’s other authors he said.
* The view that “using such sites [e.g., MySpace] to promote health messages is promising,” in “Social Networking Sites: Finding a Balance Between Their Risks and Benefits,” an editorial by Dr. Kimberly J. Mitchell of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and Michele Ybarra of Internet Solutions for Kids (in this same latest issue of Archives).
More than 90% of US teens have Net access, and about half of those use social-network sites, USATODAY reported in its coverage of the studies. Citing background information in the Archives article, the Post added that “MySpace boasts more than 200 million profiles, according to the studies, and about one-quarter of those belong to teens under 18.”
* “Teenage Brain: A Work in Progress,” National Institute of Mental Health , and “The Teenage Brain,” Frontline, PBS .
* The Internet effect: What about the Net is actually changing the equation now, what distinguishes socializing online through sharing comments, photos, and videos about ourselves from the old-fashioned, less public socializing we’ve done for a long time? Social media researcher danah boyd sums it up in four factors: persistence (it’s hard to take down); searchability (people you don’t know can find it); replicability (it can be copied and pasted elsewhere, without our knowledge); and invisible audiences (what’s most prominent in the above studies) – see this interview with danah in AlterNet.org.