MySpace study shows most teens staying safe from predators
MIAMI — Despite fears that teenagers on the Internet are leaving themselves vulnerable to predators, a new study that examined adolescents' pages on MySpace.com suggests most teens are behaving responsibly in the type of information they post about their lives.
Authors of the unpublished study say there remain troubling findings, including 5 percent of youths on public MySpace pages posting pictures of themselves in bathing suits or underwear.
But more than 90 percent of the 1,475 teenagers in the study, who left their personal networking pages available for outsiders, did not include their full name in their personal profiles, noted the study co-authored by a South Florida professor. And the researchers found that 40 percent of teenagers in the MySpace study sample were keeping their pages completely off-limits to everyone but their friends, as the site allows.
"We just hope that this trend continues," said Sameer Hinduja, a criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University who conducted the study with Justin Patchin of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
The professors have been working together on several studies related to "cyberbullying," taunting and harassing behaviors that have migrated from the school yard to the Internet and cell phones. The latest study examined MySpace, one of the world's most popular Web sites, which lets users communicate with each other and post pictures of themselves along with personal musings and sound and video clips. Findings were presented at an academic conference and are now under review by an academic journal.
MySpace prohibits users under 14 and automatically keeps profiles of users under 16 "private," meaning only friends have access. But the authors combed pages randomly and found clues — like friends' comments about recent birthdays and inconsistencies between listed age and birth date — that suggested some youngsters were lying about their age to break the rules.
MySpace officials did not return a call to their media relations center. But the company has taken public steps in recent months to post warnings and tips on its Web site to diminish the potential for unwanted attention.
"We think that the media campaign has worked in the sense that kids are being smarter about what they put online and a lot are leaving their profiles private so that anonymous researchers and pedophiles don't see it," said Patchin, who set up his own MySpace account a year ago to explore the phenomenon.
Arielle Eisenberg, a 17-year-old from Pinecrest, Fla., said she made her profiles for MySpace and Facebook, another social networking site, private soon after opening them — after she received unwanted contact from strangers.
"Really weird people, like, try to request to be my friend and I don't want to deal with that," said Eisenberg, who uses the sites regularly to keep up with out-of-town friends.
The researchers examined 1,475 teenage MySpace pages, among millions left public:
—More than half of teenagers posted their pictures online and an unspecified number of others provided detailed physical descriptions of themselves. In addition to the 5 percent that posted pictures of themselves in bathing suits or underwear, another 15 percent had suggestive pictures of their friends in their online profiles.
—Only 4 percent of pages listed instant messaging contact information. One percent listed personal e-mail addresses and just a handful of teens listed their phone numbers.
—Though 90 percent of teenagers did not list full names, they did leave other identifying information, including their first names (40 percent), hometown (81 percent) and high school (28 percent).
David Finkelhor, director of The University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, has not seen the MySpace study. But he welcomes more specific strategies to prevent children from getting victimized online and more academic research into what is really going on in cyberspace.
"Somebody can just go onto MySpace and they see a lot of raunchy stuff and they say 'What is the world coming to? Youth today are lost.' That's not a systematic review of what kids are doing on there," he said.MORE IN Central Vermont
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