In two related studies, researchers have found that 54 percent of adolescents frequently use social networking Web sites (SNSs) like MySpace as a platform to discuss high-risk activities including sexual behaviour, substance abuse or violence.
The studies, 'Adolescent Display of Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace', and 'Reducing At-Risk Adolescents' Display of Risk Behavior on a Social Networking Web Site', were led by research fellow Megan A. Moreno, MD, MPH, MSEd, and Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute, and the University of Washington.
As SNSs like Facebook.com and MySpace.com are getting increasingly popular, parents and those who work with teens fear that these sites might expose teens to ill-intentioned online predators, cyberbullies and increased peer pressure.
They are also concerned that university enrolment and future hiring decisions also suffer by the content posted online by adolescents in their personal profiles.
In the first study, the researchers collected information directly from 500 randomly chosen MySpace profiles of self-reported 18-year-old males and females from the United States.
They examined the extent to which high-risk behaviours were reported in the profiles, as well as any correlations that suggested that certain behaviours may be influenced by other items, interests or activities.
It was found that 54 percent of the MySpace profiles contained high-risk behaviour information, with 41 percent referencing substance abuse, 24 percent referencing sexual behavior and 14 percent referencing violence.
Also, the study revealed that females were less likely to display violent information than males, and teens who reported a sexual orientation other than "straight" showed increased displays of references to sexual behaviours.
Profiles that demonstrated church or religious involvement were associated with decreased displays of risky behaviours, and same went for profiles that indicated engagement in sports or hobbies.
"Online displays of risky behaviours may actually just be displays. Some teens may be grandstanding, or may be indicating intention or considered behaviour. If that's the case, then there's a silver lining because this presents opportunities for education and prevention before risky behaviour takes place. When online displays of dangerous behaviour discuss actual behaviours, the good news is that teens may be amenable to participating in online interventions. Our related study looked at this, and we were happy to see that even a brief email intervention may be feasible and showed promise for influencing online behavior," said Moreno.
Focussing on 190 self-described 18 to 20-year olds with public MySpace profiles that met study criteria for being at-risk, the profiles received a single intervention email from "Dr. Meg," the physician online profile of Moreno, who became a MySpace member.
The scientists observed that at the beginning of this study, 54 percent of subjects referenced sex and 85 percent referenced substance use. After the email intervention, 13 percent of the profiles decreased references to sex behaviours, and 26 percent decreased their substance use references.
Ten percent of the profiles changed their security listings from "public" to "private," and a total of 42 percent of the profiles implemented any of these three protective measures.
Of those who received the email intervention females were most likely to eliminate sexual references.
Based on the results from both studies, the researchers concluded that SNS are readily available tools to identify displayed health information and also to communicate with teens about these displays, and they are another way parents and physicians can learn about how adolescents make health-related choices.
The researchers further added that adolescence is a period of identity exploration, which now includes online identity, and adolescents may be open to communicating with health professionals about their online displays.
The studies are published in the January issue of Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine.