Before the wave of technology hit our society, the only way teens could interact socially was to make time to “hang out” with each other. When and where these interactions took place obviously varied from teen to teen according to their common interests and accessibility. However, with technological advances, this has all changed. Teens now are having much fewer “in person” contacts with one another and greater online interactions. You may be surprised to know that approximately 55 percent of teens in the United States are using social networking Web sites to create and maintain relationships with others. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 70 percent of girls and 54 percent of boys between the ages of fifteen and seventeen use these sites regularly.
Currently, the most popular social networking site is MySpace. MySpace asks their users to create a personal profile, which includes personal data about themselves including their demographics, interests, hobbies, likes, dislikes, and even rituals. Photographs are also attached along with music from their favorite bands and quotes from their favorite artists. Once the personal profile is completed, it is linked to a network of online contacts as per the user’s choice. The network allows each user to communicate with one another in a variety of ways. Teens can send personal and private messages to one another or post general comments, bulletins, or blogs for everyone to view.
Parents, teachers, coaches, clergy, and even police officers have made their concerns known about teens disclosing such an extensive amount of personal information to others on a public Web site. Due to these growing concerns, families, schools, community agencies, and religious organizations have begun to educate teens about Internet safety. Fortunately, this has resulted in teens being much more protective of their profiles. Some teens (66 percent according to the Pew Research) choose to keep their profiles “private” so that only the people they accept as “friends” can view it.
The idea of using social networking sites to create and maintain friendships can be viewed as both positive and negative. On the positive side, teens are able to stay in touch with friends and family who do not live close by, save money on phone bills and/or text messaging, and provide academic, social, and familial support to others. In addition, these sites have helped more socially anxious teens to reach out to their peers and to talk with them about a variety of topics that they would not do so in person. The overwhelming fear of rejection or humiliation in social settings often keeps many teens much more isolated from their peers resulting in fewer contacts and friendships. MySpace has changed this for many thankful adolescents. Most of these teens note that after communicating via MySpace, it is much easier to approach a peer in person at school or in the neighborhood.
On the negative side, teens are not practicing appropriate social skills in a variety of settings when building or maintaining friendships online. For example, they are not learning how to engage in active listening or practicing making eye contact with others. In addition, they are not learning how to pick up on non-verbal social cues because they cannot see the other person’s response to their questions or comments. Unfortunately, without this practice, even if it is easier for the socially anxious teen to approach someone in person after conversations have taken place online, it does not mean that the interaction will be positive and/or successful.
Another negative aspect of MySpace is the acceptability and frequency of online bullying, which has increased dramatically in the past several years. Teens feel much more courageous to say whatever they want to someone else when they do not have to look them in the eye or manage their response. Most teens agree that it is easier to call someone an offensive name, disrespect their family, or cuss them out when they don’t fear physical retaliation or don’t have to see the other person cry. In fact, some teens admit that they would not say half the things they say to others if they were not online. The idea of thinking before speaking does not seem to be considered nearly as much when communicating online. This is dangerous for several reasons. First, it is illegal to threaten or harass someone else no matter what the setting—in person or online. Legal action may be taken against someone who engages in these activities. Therefore, it is important for teens to understand the legal consequences for online harassment and simple assault (threats of harm). Teens can be charged with a misdemeanor for these actions if a complaint is filed and it is much easier to prove since it is in writing.
MySpace can be used in negative ways to gain popularity. For example, MySpace has a list which each user compiles placing their friends in order of importance. In other words, their “number one” might be their boyfriend or girlfriend and their “number two” might be their best friend. Most teens talk about their “top eight.” If a teen is on someone’s top eight (depending on where they are located on that list) they usually feel proud and honored. However, if they are excluded from someone’s top eight, they may feel offended and upset. This list at a minimum can cause hurt feelings and, at a maximum, cause arguments, fights, and retaliation among friends.
MySpace can also be used to gain negative attention. For example, people may put inappropriate pictures of themselves on their profile page. Photographs of a person partying, engaging in sexually promiscuous behaviors, or engaging in offensive activities may be posted for all to view. In addition, “nudes” may be sent among the social network. Nudes are just what they sound like. They are naked photographs of a person. Someone may request to see nudes from a certain user, or a user may offer to send their nudes to others. Recently, I had a parent come into my office horrified that her daughter had posted nudes on her profile page. However, even more disturbing to the parent were the comments posted in response to the pictures, which included multiple profane and offensive solicitations for sex. The circulation of nudes clearly raises tremendous fears and safety concerns with the knowledge that there continues to be an increase of Internet predators in our country.
It is important for parents to be aware of what their child is putting on his or her profile page. Do not be afraid to ask your child to share it with you. If teens have nothing to hide, they will be more than willing to show their parents their MySpace. However, parents beware. Often kids have two separate MySpaces; one for their parents’ eyes and one for their friends to view. Kids can easily become addicted to MySpace. Some of my patients talk about being on MySpace for up to eight hours per day.
There are several tips to control the amount of time your teen spends on MySpace. First, keep dibs on the amount of time they are actually on the computer and don’t be afraid to limit their time. Second, talk to your kids about excessive Internet use and find out the reasons for this use. Different kids have different reasons for spending large amounts of time on the computer. Check in on them when they are using the computer to see if they are using it for the reasons that they say they are (i.e., homework or social networking). Third, provide them with alternative solutions, especially if the reasons involve negative attention seeking behaviors. Get them involved in things that interest them that are not computer related. Lastly, educate your teen on Internet safety and be aware of the dangers yourself. Remember not everyone uses MySpace for negative purposes. However, this does not mean that they do not face the same risks factors when utilizing social networking sites.