MySpace enables networking, but poses risks for young users

Friday, April 28, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

MySpace, a free Web site created as a cyber community where people can meet and correspond, announced several weeks ago that it removed 200,000 members’ profiles because of objectionable content.

Donell Young, coordinator of judicial services in the MU Department of Student Life, said the Web site is especially popular with teenagers. Young is also a member of the Facebook Task Force, a group established last semester to address and publicize the possible risks associated with Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, a similar social networking site.

Pre-college youths can belong to MySpace. The site has 50 million to 60 million members who create personal profiles with interests, dislikes, a personality description and the type of people they would like to meet.

“The uniqueness of the site is that it is a lot of peer-to-peer,” said Monique Nelson, executive vice president of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit Internet safety organization based in California. “If you are not on it, you’re not cool. They (high school students) feel pressure to be on it.”

A recent search on MySpace found 468 profiles of teens who listed themselves as Rock Bridge High School students and 525 who listed themselves as Hickman High School students.

MySpace prohibits sexually explicit photos and requires members to be at least 14 years old to create an account. Its terms of use agreement gives MySpace the authority to delete any content deemed to be “offensive, illegal or violate the rights, harm, or threaten the safety of any member.”

As strict as these rules are, one 15-year-old female who lists her school as Hickman calls herself “Strawberry Slut.” She admits to smoking and drinking alcohol, and her selected quotation says, “You look better with duct tape over your mouth.” Another Hickman profile pictures a 16-year-old with two beers, a cigarette in his mouth and the Confederate flag in the background.

The photo of a 17-year-old, who says he attends Rock Bridge, shows him holding a gun in front on his face. His alias is “Like Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight.”

Kathy Ritter, assistant principal at Rock Bridge, said she is aware of such profiles but says she believes the use of the Web site is between parents and students. On a couple of occasions, Ritter said, users have notified Rock Bridge of MySpace content that might have a negative impact on the school, and she said the school follows up on such reports.

Besides profanity and illegal use of drugs and alcohol, the site includes blogs, some of which advertise anorexia or post hateful messages.

Nelson said part of her job is to explain to students that people whom they do not know personally can access their profiles and, therefore, their personal information, depending on how much each student chooses to reveal.

“We are trying to get across to kids that the people who visit the site are not all your friends; these are strangers,” she said.

Ann Landes, director of guidance for Hickman, said that the site is freer than e-mail. “It’s more anonymous, which is scary.”

Landes said she informally reminds students at Hickman to be careful when using the Web, but says she also recognizes the social benefits of the Web site. “Don’t put yourself in a compromising situation,” she said. “Be careful on who you accept as a friend.”

Because of a lack of restrictions to MySpace membership, older users can solicit and make contact with youths, Young said. “The concept is great, but there is a false sense of security,” he said.

Veronica Hanna, a sophomore at MU, said she’s been a member of MySpace for four months. She joined because her friends from Michigan, who do not attend college, wanted a way to easily communicate with her.

“I think that some people put weird stuff on it because it can attract attention,” Hanna said. “I know some people who are a part of it just to find relationships. I also know people who put very revealing pictures of themselves just to get attention from strangers.”

The search for Columbia high school students also found plenty of benign profiles. A 16-year-old Hickman student shows pictures of her cat and her boyfriend. She includes information about typical teenage interests such as boys, college and shopping. Another profile of a 17-year-old Rock Bridge student talks about sports, movies and what traits he wants in a girlfriend.

Just as individuals can create profiles, so can groups. In particular, the site features more than 600,000 bands. Fans can listen to samples of songs and leave messages. The site also allows members to upload their own music.

MySpace also provides the opportunity for members to reunite with old friends.

“My daughter found old colleagues and former friends on the site,” Landes said, adding that it’s a great way to keep in touch.

Young said MySpace facilitates discussion among students on a variety of things.

“It’s a great way to help communicate with classmates about class,” Young said. “If a student on campus dies, the other students can create a memorial for that student; we have already seen that.”

Web Wise Kids educates parents, as well as youths, about safe and responsible online use.

“Most teenagers just don’t think,” Nelson said. “They put way too much personal information on themselves out there. Parents need to be involved and keep a watchful eye on what their kids are doing online. They don’t think the same way we do.”

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