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.
5. Create a profile. Ask your teen to help you create your own social networking profile. It's a chance to learn the ins and outs of a site while providing an opportunity to model how you'd like your teen to behave online. Explain why you're not going to post that photograph of you on the family vacation because of how your boss might interpret it. "You can lead by example by saying, 'I'm going to think about all the different people who can look at this,'" says Moreno. Then, of course, you can add your teen to your list of "friends." Though she may shield certain aspects of her profile from your view—Facebook, for example, allows users to block certain people from seeing certain things—doing so will help adolescents be conscientious of who's in their circle of viewers, says Moreno. You can also use this as a jumping-off point for discussing who her online friends are. Some teens may accept a stranger's "friendship" to bloat their friend list in the name of cyber-popularity. (Who has 886 friends, anyway?)
6. Intervene. If teens don't seem to be listening, take a cue from "Dr. Meg"— an online profile invented by Moreno (for a second study) to see if E-mails from a concerned doctor could spur teens to buff up their lurid profiles. It worked, specifically where references to sex were concerned: Teens who got an E-mail were three times more likely to remove all sex references than those who didn't. "Some teens didn't get what 'public' really meant," says Moreno. "Other teens suggested that they didn't think that anyone outside their few friends ever viewed their profile."
7. But ... use "adult language," not Internet lingo, when interacting. If you plan to send an electronic message to teens, spare them the cyber-speak, note Mitchell and her co-author in an editorial appearing in this month's Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. While their message is aimed at health professionals and researchers, parents can glean some insight. "There is no need for us to try to appropriate youth lingo," they wrote. "Instead of 'R U thinking,' write 'are you thinking.' Youth expect adults to talk like adults."
8. Skip the monitoring software. Yes, software exists that can monitor every single keystroke, says Willard, but unless a teen has significantly misbehaved—i.e., they've bullied someone online or worse—she urges parents not to use it. "It's an incredible violation of privacy," she says. "They'll lose trust." Discussion is preferable. (And if you need to peep, she sees nothing wrong with reviewing the Web browser's history file.)
9. Encourage your kid to bring up problems. Let teens know that if they encounter any sort of uncomfortable situation online—from a peer posting something they don't like to being bullied or sexually harassed—that they can come and talk to you. Let them know that you aren't going to give them a hard time but that you're just going to support and help them, says Moreno. (What to do if your child is bullied online.)
10. Bottom line: Be engaged. "Be actively and positively involved with your kids in the real world and online," says Willard, "because they're posting stuff that relates to their real-world activities."
For more on how teenagers use MySpace and other social networking sites to get (often sketchy) health advice, see Nancy Shute's report on 3 ways teens can avoid bogus health information online.