By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent
Researchers studying teens and risky behaviors have followed young people onto social networking sites, where more than half of them are at least talking about sex, substance use, and violence, according to a new survey of MySpace.com profiles. A second part of the researchers' study showed that the online behavior of those presumed teens can be changed relatively easily.
When a doctor who also had a profile on the social networking site sent a message to 18- to 20-year-olds warning them about risky behaviors based on their public descriptions, a significant proportion changed their profiles.
Dr. Megan A. Moreno, lead author of both studies appearing in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and her colleagues at the University of Washington first tried to determine the prevalence of health risk behaviors being described on MySpace.com. Online communities such as MySpace and Facebook allow users to create personal Web profiles that they can use to communicate with designated friends.
Some information can be barricaded behind privacy walls, but their July through September 2007 survey looked at 500 public profiles of self-described 18-year-olds. The researchers found that 54 percent of the profiles contained references to sexual activity, drinking or drug use, or violence. Substance use led the list, mentioned on 41 percent of profiles, followed by sexual activity on 24 percent of profiles and violence on 14.4 percent.
In the second study, Moreno sent an e-mail message to half of 190 young people from 18 to 20 years old whose public MySpace profiles included at least three references to sexual behaviors or substance use, including alcohol and tobacco. She called herself "Dr. Meg," identified herself as an adolescent medicine doctor and researcher, and urged them to check out her academic Web page.
"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.
Three months later, 42.1 percent of the ones who received the e-mail had changed their profiles, dropping references to sex and substance use or moving their profiles from public to private. That compares to 29.5 percent from the other half of the study group, who changed their profiles without having gotten Dr. Meg's e-mail.
Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, was impressed that one well-phrased e-mail message could have such a strong effect on the adolescents in the study.
"They believed that e-mail whether they should have or not," he said, doubting that the young people verified who "Dr. Meg" was. "It brought them up a little bit short to see 'someone out there is actually paying attention to what I am doing.' "
Rich, who was not involved in either study, sees social networking sites as 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, he said.
"The Internet is not only the village square, but what they put there never leaves," he said. "They have to be prepared to take responsibility for the images and ideas they present."
Using such sites to promote health messages is promising, Kimberly J. Mitchell and Michele Ybarra of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center said in an editorial appearing with the two studies.
"Youth will likely be more receptive to prevention and intervention messages if they can relate to them on a personal level using the technology they inhabit," they write. "At the same time, we need to be aware that adolescents see their profiles as their private space."
Rather than pushing advice into their domains, pulling them into nonjudgmental information sites might have a better chance of success, Rich of Children's said. An online resource could "friend" a person who has a profile, for example.
There's a risk that young people will leave these Web 2.0 social networking sites behind for the next big thing.
"E-mail is so old," Rich said. "Instant messaging and texting are fading away for Twitter, which is much more immediate. It just shows how quickly technology transforms the world we live in and the way we do things."
About white coat notes
|White Coat Notes covers the latest from the health care industry, hospitals, doctors offices, labs, insurers, and the corridors of government. Chelsea Conaboy previously covered health care for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @cconaboy.|
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