News that about half of 500 teens' publicly available MySpace profiles contain references to sex, violence, and substance abuse may have made some parents' stomachs churn. But while the research, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, was led by a doctor, you don't have to be an M.D. to make a similar discovery—an informal survey of the various social networking sites will turn up similar results—snapshots of teens passed out on bathroom floors; photos of teens guzzling booze or flaunting lingerie; or mention of 4:20 (code for smoking marijuana) and other drug-related salutes. "A parent could have done this study," notes Megan Moreno, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who led the research. "We didn't have any special access."
But such public display of risky behavior can have some unanticipated consequences. Media reports of school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have been linked to content that students have posted online. College administrators and employers also reportedly use social networking sites as screening tools, even rejecting would-be candidates over what they found. The "million-dollar question," says Moreno, is whether broadcasting risqué content is simply a way for teens to amplify their cool factor or whether it's a true reflection of how they behave offline; however, she notes, past psychological studies of how people behave on gaming websites—where they can create "avatars" or virtual representations of themselves—have revealed that people generally develop online identities that match who they truly are. "It's pretty suggestive that when you have a site like MySpace, maybe there's some posturing, but it's pretty hard to keep it up long term," she says, "especially when the people who are viewing [your profile] are your friends and will probably call you out on it."
If you're worried that your teen might be letting it all hang out online, experts offer these tips:
1. Don't treat her profile like a private diary. Your teen's social networking profile—whether it lives on MySpace, Facebook, or Bebo—is something that you should think is within your right to view, says Moreno, especially when it's open and available to the public. "If I can look at it as a researcher, parents sure should be able to look at it," she says. "Looking at your child's MySpace—it's not like looking at their diary." Furthermore, it's OK to set limits and boundaries on how kids use these sites—just as you'd set limits and boundaries in the real world.
2. Get to know your teen's online profile. Arrange a time, perhaps after dinner, to sit down with your teen in front of the computer for a profile viewing. "Just start asking questions," says Moreno. She recommends resisting the urge to immediately kvetch about that photo of your daughter baring her navel (since that's likely to put a swift end to the session). Instead, focus on showing that you're interested in who she is by acknowledging that her profile is an extension of who she is. Discussing the books, movies, or music that she has listed would be a good place to start. Gradually express your concerns.
3. Protect them from themselves. It's not just younger siblings or grandma who might catch a glimpse of your teen's profile; college administrators, prospective employers, and even predators could, too. That's why it's important to discuss how others could use or interpret the information displayed. "When we're online, there's a misperception that we're invisible," says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use and author of Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens. "[Parents] have to help teens understand." Remind them to be cautious about whatever they post online because it could have immediate or long-term consequences, she says. Even a privacy-protected profile isn't immune from a back-stabbing peer, who, in an instant, could make a private photo very public by plastering it all over the Internet (which Moreno says some of her patients have endured).
4. Don't prohibit use of social sites. Though you may want to forbid your teen from using social networking sites outright, doing so probably isn't the best strategy, notes Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center. "There are really more positive aspects of social networking sites than negative, although we tend to focus on the negative," she says. For example, the sites can help teens maintain contact with friends and family; they can be good outlets for teens who think they lack offline support; and they can help teens explore their identities as they navigate adolescence, says Mitchell. Moreover, since social networking sites are likely to be a permanent fixture in our culture, it's best to help teens learn to use them safely "instead of making broad claims about dangers and prohibiting use, which teens will not relate to and likely ignore," she says.