Once upon a time, kids got in trouble with their parents for talking on the phone all day. Those kids grew up and became parents, and their kids talked on their cell phones. But they also sat at keyboards and typed and chatted and instant messaged, and they always seemed to be looking at MySpace.
And the parents marveled, or were aghast, depending on their point of view, at the amount of time their children spent talking to friends online. The Internet had become their kids’ favorite way to keep in touch with friends, and they didn’t know how to feel about it.
It’s hard enough to come to terms with the numbers:
A population 2½ times the size of Columbia joins the social network MySpace every day. That’s 250,000 new members on an average day.
There are 116 million member profiles on MySpace and counting.
As fast as all of this is changing the way young people socialize, researchers have managed to keep up. What they’ve found so far is that in many ways, relationships made and maintained online are similar to the old world, face-to-face kind. They may be even easier to form because the sense of anonymity removes some of the fear of rejection.
Some of parents’ fears about this vast, new Internet frontier are justified. Stories about child predators who found their prey online hit the news while kids sit in front of computers typing out conversations parents can’t hear.
Even after parents take steps to protect their child against online child predators and identity theft, they worry.
What if spending so much time online makes their kid socially isolated and weird? What if the friends they make aren’t “real”?
Sarah Frazier’s hair is at least three shades of brown. She wears thick eyeliner. Tall and thin in a concert T-shirt and ripped jeans covered in ink scribbles, she’s the perfect image of a teenager who lives and breathes music.
But Sarah, 16, a junior at Hickman High School, isn’t filled with the angst that goes along with the stereotype attached to her chosen look. She has a dynamic personality and is nothing short of magnetic. With one long leg tucked under her as she sits at her computer, she writes a message to a friend on MySpace while talking to another friend on the phone and instant messaging a third friend using AOL Instant Messenger.
She met some of her best friends at Christian summer camp. Maintaining those summer camp friendships is one of the major reasons Sarah created a MySpace profile. Today, MySpace is her principal means of maintaining those relationships.
Sarah’s father, Steve Frazier, is a lead operator at the MU Power Plant. Lately, when he’s not at work, Steve has been rebuilding the engine of his daughter’s brown 1987 Toyota Corolla. On a recent weekday afternoon at his home just north of Columbia, he alternated poking around under the hood and trying to start Sarah’s car. He was unfazed when the engine refused to catch. Patiently, he checked the wires and tried again.
Patience is key to Steve’s survival. His home is a hive of activity with three school-age kids running around. On this particular afternoon, he asked Sarah to join the family for lunch at least three times, each time a bit more forcefully, before she got up from the chair in front of the computer, closed her cell phone and took her place at the table.
Steve and his wife, Linda, believe in setting boundaries to protect their children’s safety, but they also believe in allowing them freedom to make their own choices. “The trick is to stay one step ahead of them,” he said.
This philosophy applies to Steve’s management of the family computer. Logging into the computer requires his password, and he uses a filter called “My Family Explorer” to control each child’s Internet use.
Each child is assigned a different filter specific to his or her age, which blocks the user from places he or she shouldn’t go. The filter isn’t perfect. Steve said, laughing, that it once blocked a Bible reference site.
The computer is in the living room, near the dining room and kitchen, and that’s no accident. When it comes to children, “it’s not a good idea to have private access to the Internet,” Steve said.
Sarah, the oldest, joined MySpace in April after her friends began suggesting she put up a profile. “A lot of people were asking me (to join), so I thought maybe I should get one,” Sarah said.
She put up her profile on her own. She kept the default privacy settings, so all MySpace users could view her profile and anyone could ask to be added to her friends list. She admits she didn’t know much about the site when she joined, just that “everybody had it.”
Steve knew his daughter had a profile, but he didn’t know much about it or about MySpace, aside from the occasional story in the news. He took a hands-off approach to Sarah’s MySpace use beyond restricting her time on the computer to one hour per day.
“It seemed innocent enough,” Steve said.
Lots of parents use the Internet. They send e-mails, shop and find information. It’s not a lack of understanding about the Internet itself at the root of their concerns; it’s a lack of understanding about how young people are forming “communities” in the virtual world and how it’s affecting their socialization skills.
“Parents belong to a different generation, one in which social involvement was conducted face to face only at school, the neighborhood, shopping malls,” Gustavo Mesch, a sociologist studying how children form communities online, said via e-mail. Mesch holds a doctorate in sociology from Ohio State University and is a senior lecturer and research associate at the University of Haifa, in Israel.
To parents, the online world of cyberspace seems like a parallel universe — an unreal world. They see an impermeable boundary between the real world and the online world.
Mesch says there is no boundary. Several empirical studies of youths’ social relationships on the Internet in the United States, Israel and England show that cyberspace is real social space, he said. And in that real world, kids have more friends than ever. They’re not all face-to-face friends, but in this new world, Mesch’s studies show, kids play games, participate in forums, network and create new friendships. His studies found that 15 percent of adolescents report having at least one close friend they met online.
MySpace is one of those networks. It allows members to search for and add friends, send messages to each other, write blogs, instant message, join groups and post comments on each others’ profiles.
A member begins networking by creating a profile. Sarah’s has a customized background, a YouTube video of a favorite band and a survey Sarah filled out about herself. A song begins to play on Sarah’s profile when the site finishes loading, a special feature of the site.
Sarah has 62 “friends.” In the picture that appears on her profile, Sarah is looking up at the camera she is holding over her head. In other black-and-white photos, she’s posed on a couch or a bed with what could be described as a come-hither look.
Her father doesn’t approve of all of the pictures on his daughter’s site. But he said he’s made his opinion known and it’s up to her to decide what to do.
She sees her profile as more or less an accurate representation of who she is: a Goth girl who likes heavy metal music, is religious and writes dark poetry.
“I try to be as honest as possible,” Sarah said with one of her frequent, big smiles. “I’m generally honest.”
Sam Hunt, 19, a sophomore majoring in history at MU, takes a slightly different approach to his profile.
“It’s an accurate portrayal of how I want people to think I am,” he said with a laugh. Which is to say, smart and funny and a person of good taste.
MySpace users can list interests, favorite movies, TV shows and books and “about me,” which is a field the member can use to fill in any informational gaps. “It’s like your own personalized site for yourself and friends to check up on you,” Sarah said.
MySpace, and all social networking sites, allows users to browse for and add friends. A member can search by name or e-mail address as well as by interest or keyword. Once a member finds a friend, the person can be added to his or her network if the person agrees.
Sarah’s favorite feature is the comments feature, which allows friends to post messages on each other’s profiles. “They kind of spark conversation,” Sarah said.
Comments can be pictures or graphics, but many times are as little as typed messages asking “What’s up Saturday night?” or inside jokes that make no sense to an outside reader. But Sarah says the point is to let her friends know they crossed her mind. Most of the time a friend will reply to Sarah’s comment with a return comment or a message.
It’s like a forum for creating a constant commentary on one’s life.
“Does she need it? No,” her father says of the importance of MySpace to his daughter’s social life.
But he understands its value to her, which is why, when she gets in trouble, the Internet is one of the privileges she loses. On one such occasion, he said to her: “You act like I’m beating you with a bullwhip by not letting you on MySpace.”
But Steve is the one who takes the punishment in the form of whining and incessant pleas to go online. That’s why grounding from the Internet, he says, tends to last only a day.
You know where you’re going,
You know how things work
You’re ready to build your own friend network!
You can find nearly anyone and keep in close touch
It’s not any trouble, really! Not much!
At the end of Christian summer camp in Jackson, Tenn., Sarah left without getting a friend’s phone number. But she found her friend on MySpace when she got home, and now the two communicate at least once a week. “MySpace is how we all stay in contact,” Sarah said.
Desmon Turner, 13, uses MySpace to keep in touch with a lifelong friend. Though she lives only 10 minutes away, Turner can’t always make it over to see her. He uses MySpace to send her messages about nothing in particular, “just what’s going on at school and stuff,” Desmon said. The messages help them to stay closer than they would without an online social network.
Hunt uses MySpace to keep in touch with his cousin more easily than he could with a phone call. “I can find out what’s going on with him without taking half an hour out of my day to find out,” he said.
Because communicating is so much easier and less time-consuming, Hunt said, he thinks he can maintain more relationships than he could with more traditional forms of communication. But he also uses networks to make new friends. He met one of his best friends over on Facebook.
Facebook is a social network that works much like MySpace, but membership is restricted to regional networks, like the St. Louis area, businesses or single universities and colleges, which require a valid .edu e-mail address. There are 10 million profiles on the site.
The person Hunt refers to as one of his best friends sent him a Facebook message after he saw him at the MU Student Recreation Complex. The two ended up going to the gym together and have been close ever since. Hunt credits Facebook for the new friendship, but he thinks they would have met eventually because they know some of the same people.
Sociologists Katelyn McKenna, Amie Green and Marci Gleason write in their article “Relationship Formation on the Internet: What’s the Big Attraction?” that the relative anonymity of Internet interactions greatly reduces the risks of rejection and ridicule that come from self-disclosure, especially about private subjects, and that early self-disclosure lays the foundation for a continuing, close relationship.
Online relationships not only happen more easily, they also endure as well as traditional relationships in the face-to-face world. In a study of online relationships, McKenna, Green and Gleason found that 75 percent of those bonds were intact after two years. What’s more, 54 percent of all online relationships were reported to have become closer and stronger by the end of two years. Only 25 percent of the online relationships that were studied dissolved.
Sarah has made friends on MySpace as well, some of whom she has never met face to face. One of them she met through another friend’s network. This kind of introduction is not unusual for Sarah and her friends. Often, a friend will ask Sarah about another friend who appears with her in one of the pictures on her profile and Sarah will introduce them on MySpace using the message feature. The two friends will then message each other, and a relationship is born.
Sarah talks to her MySpace friend online most days, but they also talk on the phone. She says her MySpace friend means as much to her as any of her face-to-face friends.
Steve knows most of Sarah’s friends in the face-to-face world but few of her online friends. “I would like to know people she feels close to, but I don’t need to know all of them,” he said.
He said he was tempted to put spyware on his computer to keep an eye on her and his other children, but he decided against it. He’s satisfied with checking the filter history occasionally instead. “At some point, you gotta let them go,” Steve said.
Be careful when you’re deciding on which friends to add
There are nice people to meet, but some are quite bad.
They might try to hurt you if you give them a chance.
So take care what you post, think in advance!
Steve knew something was wrong when he walked through the living room to find his daughter staring at the computer screen, crying.
Sarah had given her MySpace account password to a friend. Two weeks later, that friend logged into her account without her knowledge and changed her profile. Angry, Sarah told her friend to stay out of her account, but she didn’t change her password.
More than a month later, the friend changed her profile again — this time, more radically. He deleted friends and turned her into a drag queen and a male. For her, it was as if her work — the personal, creative statement that was her profile — had been defaced.
She told her father what happened, and the two of them deleted the bogus profile and created a new one.
For the first time, Steve took a look at the privacy settings. “I told her, ‘We’re going to set up a new account and look at the settings. If you’re going to have this, these restrictions have to be in place.’”
Now only friends can view Sarah’s profile and, to become Sarah’s friend, a user has to know either her last name or her e-mail address.
Sarah watched while Steve changed her settings, but “I was in the chair,” he said.
Sarah is grateful for her father’s help and admits that she knew little about privacy before he got involved. “I don’t want that to happen again,” Sarah said. “I’m glad he showed me.”
The picture on Desmon Turner’s profile is a graphic of a meteor striking the earth, but he plans to post a picture of himself. Hearing this, Desmon’s mother, Tonia Turner, was somewhat taken aback.
Turner was standing over her son while he sat at the computer in their living room. Her daughter sat nearby in front of the TV, playing Nintendo.
“I wouldn’t put my face on there,” Tonia said, looking over her son’s shoulder at his profile.
Desmon seemed surprised. “Why wouldn’t you?”
“Because your face can be anywhere, then. Once you put your face on there, anybody can take that picture and do anything they want with it. Once you put that, you have no control of what people do with it,” Tonia said.
MySpace privacy settings allow members to keep other users from copying and e-mailing links to their pictures, but there is no protection against copying an image from a profile and saving it to a hard drive. Once it is saved as a file on a hard drive, it can be e-mailed, printed or posted elsewhere.
But Desmon wasn’t convinced. While he knows someone could stalk him, he doesn’t feel at risk personally because of the sheer number of people on MySpace.
“MySpace has the tightest security ever because it has a lot of people,” Desmon said.
His mother disagrees, especially when it comes to her son adding “friends” he doesn’t know in person. Desmon doesn’t see why adding a stranger is any big deal. Of his five MySpace friends, he knows one face to face.
“Just because you’re good-hearted and you’re trustworthy doesn’t mean the other person is,” his mother said. “And it doesn’t mean they’re 14. What if they’re a 20- or 40- or 55-year-old man on here portraying to be a teenager?”
That’s the question that keeps Andy Anderson up at night. Anderson, a detective with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department, investigates a lot of computer crimes. Some of those crimes are committed on MySpace, and many are the result of users making what he bluntly calls foolish decisions about what they put on their profiles and whom they allow to be their “friends.”
Anderson described how a crime can, and does, begin on a social network and how quickly it can escalate.
“I’ve seen kids post home and cell numbers” online, he said. “According to them, it’s only going to be friends that see it. What they call a friend and what I call a friend are two different things. They might mean a friend on the Internet they’ve never met in person.”
“Now, let’s say I’m a predator,” he said. “I get to look at the child’s MySpace site with their phone number. With the phone number, I can find out where that child lives. Once I have an address, I can get the map that shows me how to get to that house and I can get aerial photographs of that house.”
From there, the predator can find out who owns the house and can look up personal property taxes to find out what kind of cars they drive.
“I can probably figure out which school they go to, and I can most likely look at the school site and find out the times the school opens and closes,” Anderson said. “The information I have obtained I got just by looking at the web log.”
Desmon is no dummy. Among other activities, he is on the honor roll at Jefferson Junior High School, he plays trumpet in the marching band, and he has been on student council since he entered Gentry Middle School. He’s also a part of T-NADO, an organization that focuses on keeping kids off of drugs and alcohol. His eyes are lit with obvious intelligence.
He knows not to put identifying information like his address or phone number on his profile, and he knows not to tell strangers anything about his personal life. But, as is common in his age group, he trusts the people around him.
Anderson said kids often are naive about who might be on a social network with them.
“Junior high kids trust people,” he said.
Anderson said that some of the children he has spoken with see the number of friends they have online as a symbol of their social status, like popularity at school. So they’re not always careful about whom they allow to be in their friend network.
“Some children put a high value on their social involvement and number of friends as a status symbol, a measure of popularity. ... Usually, (in social networks) the number of latent ties is much larger, but also most of them cannot be mobilized for social support,” said Mesch, the sociologist. With age, children develop a better understanding of what friendship really means, he said.
Signs that a child’s online life might be having negative effects on his or her life in the real world include falling grades, refusal to participate in extracurricular activities and using the computer at night as well as during the day, Mesch said.
Besides these red flags, Mesch suggests that parents pay careful attention if a child makes plans to meet online friends face to face. Mesch suggests that, like in everyday life, “parents should provide advice to their children about taking careful measures when meeting strangers. One common strategy is meeting in public places in the company of known friends.”
Not all consequences of sharing personal information on the Internet end in catastrophe.
When students pass away, friends sometimes create and join memorial groups on Facebook. One such group, “Kyle Masterson: R.I.P.,” was created in memory of an MU student who fell to his death from the eighth-floor balcony at Laws Hall in February 2006. Another was created for Aaron O’Neal, an MU football player who died in July 2005 after a voluntary summer workout with the team.
The sites provided information about funerals and served as a forum for friends to talk about the people who’d died and console each other — even people they’ve never met.
The limits and uses of self-disclosure have received a lot of media coverage in the past two years as employers and people in the university community have cast a critical eye on Facebook profiles. And students have learned the hard way where school administrators, potential employers and teachers draw the line.
Brooke Moody, 19, Missouri Student Association vice president at MU, put a picture on her Facebook profile in which she was duct-taped to a chair and drinking a beer. Another student who worked as a reporter for the Maneater, a student-run newspaper, happened upon it.
“They just found the picture and basically decided to publish it,” Moody said.
Moody was not punished for the picture, but she wouldn’t put another one like it on her profile today.
While Donell Young, Coordinator of Student Conduct at MU, can’t discuss individual student’s cases, he said MU students have faced administrative action because of their Facebook profiles. Young looks at Facebook profiles only when a “real world” incident seems to require that administrators have a look. For example, if someone claims they’re being stalked in the real world and they have creepy Facebook messages to back up their claim, the administration might investigate the accused stalker’s profile.
Young created the Facebook Task Force at MU to raise student awareness about the possible consequences of what they put on their profiles. “When I heard reports of students not getting jobs because of their Facebook profiles, I decided it was the responsibility of the university to help the students,” he said.
Moody said students who are job-hunting should exercise a greater level of care about what they put on their profiles and how they set their privacy. “Kids should try to keep it clean, especially if you’re going for an internship or a job after you graduate. Whatever is on the Internet is public,” Moody said. She said she will probably leave Facebook when she starts looking for a job.
A spokeswoman for Facebook put it this way: “If you’re concerned your employer won’t like that you’re interested in ‘corporate sabotage,’ you can always remove that as an interest,” Carolyn Abram said in an e-mail.
And so our story ends. The parents and the teenager live happily ever after.
Wait. Scratch that. Parent and child will probably live happily, but the ending to this story is yet to be written. Children and parents still have a lot to learn about social networks, and there are likely still lessons to be learned and a few surprises yet to come.
Nobody knows how or if social networks will grow up with children. As children get older, it’s possible they will get tired of MySpace and move on to the next hot thing for their age group.
But it doesn’t look that way right now.
ComScore Media Metrix, a company that measures digital media, announced on October 5 that more than half of MySpace’s users were 35 and older. Perhaps MySpace will mature with its audience and change to suit its members’ adult tastes. Maybe that won’t be necessary.
As the age range widens on social networks, cyberspace begins to resemble real space more than ever. If international usership continues to grow quickly, Americans could lose the majority as well. Social networks are what the users make it, after all. Every user contributes to a social network just as every person contributes to the world around us. We each add a little of ourselves to it.
Each day there’s new members of all ages and races,
The network is full of all kinds of new faces!
How big it will get, nobody can know
But just wait and see, Oh, the Places They’ll Go.