More than half the adolescents discussed sexual behaviour, drugs or violence or other highly risky activities using MySpace, the popular social networking website or SNS, according to research.
The twin studies were led by research fellow Megan A Moreno and Dimitri Christakis, of the Centre for Child Health, Behaviour and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute (SCRI) and the University of Washington.
With the rise in SNSs' popularity and use, parents and those who work with teens fear that these sites might expose teens to ill-intentioned online predators, cyberbullies and increased peer pressure.
There are also concerns that university enrollment and future hiring decisions may be compromised by what adolescents post online in personal profiles.
SNSs like Facebook.com and MySpace.com are increasingly popular; MySpace, the most commonly used SNS, has more than 200 million profiles, with 25 percent belonging to youth under 18, according to multiple studies.1, 2
"As with television, movies, games and all media, social networking sites are neither inherently good nor bad," said Christakis, director of the Centre for Child Health, Behaviour and Development at Children's.
"Their upside needs to be acknowledged even as we remain concerned about their downside. We need to devise ways to teach teens and their parents to use the Internet responsibly," said Christakis
"In the 90s we talked about a digital divide that separated rich from poor. That divide is quickly narrowing, but a new one is emerging rapidly: the 21st century digital divide separates too many clueless parents from their Internet-savvy children," he added.
The research team collected information directly from readily available public MySpace profiles. A total of 500 randomly chosen Web profiles of self-reported 18-year-old males and females from the US provided the data.
Researchers examined the extent to which high-risk behaviours were reported in the profiles, as well as any correlations that suggested that certain behaviors may be influenced by other items, interests or activities.
They found that 54 per cent of the MySpace profiles contained high-risk behaviour information, with 41 per cent referencing substance abuse, 24 per cent referencing sexual behaviour and 14 percent referencing violence.
In the study, 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, said a SCRI release.
Profiles that demonstrated church or religious involvement were associated with decreased displays of risky behaviours, as were profiles that indicated engagement in sports or hobbies.
"Online displays of risky behaviors may actually just be displays," said Moreno, formerly a research fellow at Children's and now assistant professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.