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Researchers Find Most Teens Limit Personal Information on MySpace, But Some Youth Still at Risk

RELEASED: Dec. 4, 2006

Dr. Justin Patchin
Dr. Justin Patchin
Dr. Sameer Hinduja
Dr. Sameer Hinduja

EAU CLAIRE — A majority of teenagers are responsible when using the online social networking site MySpace, but a number of adolescents still share personal information that could put their safety at risk, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis of teenagers' MySpace profiles.

"The results of our research show that problems with MySpace are not as widespread as most people assume," said Dr. Justin Patchin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. "The media and many parents have demonized MySpace, but we found that an overwhelming majority of adolescents are using the site responsibly."

Of concern, however, is the small percent of the adolescent MySpace users who put themselves at risk by including personal or private information in their profiles, Patchin said.

"Even though we found that a relatively small percentage of adolescents are placing themselves at risk by including inappropriate information, we can't overlook the fact that that small percent may represent more than 1 million vulnerable youth," Patchin said, noting that MySpace now reports more than 130 million registered users.

MySpace — the Internet's most popular social networking site for teenagers — allows people to create personal Web pages that include information about their interests, affiliations and likes. To enhance their profiles, users can post or link to pictures, video, audio and journal entries. Visitors can leave messages, and users can connect to "friends" who also have profiles.

The media has reported on cases where MySpace profiles have been linked to stalking, sexual assault and other violence against teens, Patchin said. And many parents worry that predators or pedophiles can find and connect with potential victims via MySpace, he said. Their fears are largely based on the assumption that adolescents are posting personal information on their sites that could make them potential victims, he said.

To determine if those assumptions about teens publicly sharing identifying information are accurate, Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University, randomly selected 2,423 adolescent MySpace profiles to analyze.

MySpace requires profiles of people age 16 or under be set to private, meaning only approved friends can access the site, Patchin said, noting that MySpace also requires users to be at least 14 years old. Researchers found that almost 40 percent of the teen sites they reviewed were "set to private," meaning researchers could not view them. That left about 1,500 teen MySpace profiles in the random sample that were available for public viewing, Patchin said.

"We were happy to find that a sizable number of the teens are being responsible and not letting strangers see their profiles," Patchin said of the number of sites that were set to private. "It appears many of the concerns adults have about MySpace could be assuaged if teens would simply set their profiles to private. Youth must still be careful about what they include on the site, but at least they have some control over who sees their information."

Unfortunately, researchers also found 27 youth who officially listed themselves as over age 16 but then indicated in their profiles that they were actually under the age of 14, Patchin said. In general, about 8 percent of the profiles showed evidence of teens inflating their ages, most likely to ensure their profile could be viewed publicly, he said.

Using the 1,500 teen profiles available for public viewing, Patchin, Hinduja and student researchers at UW-Eau Claire and FAU documented the number of profiles that included a teen's first name, full name, birth date, telephone number, postal address, e-mail address, instant messaging screen name, city, state and name of their school. They also looked for evidence of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana or other drug use; photos; pictures of teens in swimsuits/underwear; and swear words.

Their findings included:

  • Almost 57 percent of the profiles included at least one photo of the teen, often of themselves with family, friends or people they met at a social gathering. Many others provided detailed descriptions of their personal appearance.
  • About 5 percent of the teens included photos of themselves in a swimsuit or underwear, and 15 percent included photos of friends in a swimsuit or underwear.
  • Almost 40 percent of the profiles included the youth's first name, and about 9 percent included their full name.
  • About 81 percent of the youth included the name of the city in which they live, and another 28 percent named the school they attend.
  • About 4 percent included their instant messaging name, and 1 percent included their e-mail address.
  • Less than 1 percent included their telephone number. But when extrapolated to all teens on MySpace, nearly 75,000 youth may be including this private information.
  • About 18 percent of the sites included evidence of alcohol use, 7 percent included evidence of tobacco use and 2 percent included evidence of marijuana use.
  • Nearly 20 percent of the profiles included profanity, and almost 33 percent of the sites included swear words in the posted comments.

"The results indicate that youth are posting personal and identifying information, but not to the extent that many believe," Patchin said. "It would be foolish to discount the reality of predators online, but our study found a vast majority of adolescents appear to demonstrate common sense when using the technology."

While MySpace does present potential risks to youths, it also provides them with important social opportunities, Patchin said. It gives teens who may be socially awkward in the real world opportunities to develop social skills or confidence, and it allows teens to try on different identities as they figure out who they are, he said.

"Adults visit the online world but kids live in it," Patchin said. "Kids aren't hanging out in public places so much anymore; they're hanging out online. MySpace and other social networking sites can be a positive social experience for kids. Adults need to accept that and not try to keep their kids away from it."

Instead, parents should teach adolescents to share information responsibly, Patchin said. Most parents wouldn't let their children explore a new neighborhood without adult supervision, and the same approach should be used to guide their online activities, he said.

"We encourage parents to sit with their kids to create a MySpace profile together," Patchin said. "Teens can teach their parents about the technology and parents can talk to their kids about making responsible choices online. MySpace can be a way for parents to get closer to their kids."



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