Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Reducing teens' risk on the Internet

In Brief

Reducing teens' risk on the Internet

More than 90% of U.S. teenagers have Internet access, and more than half use social networking sites such as MySpace or Facebook. In a pair of studies published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, collaborators led by a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed the content of 500 publicly available profiles on MySpace that were posted by users claiming to be 18 years old. The researchers found that more than half of the profiles contained information about risky behaviors. For example, 41% of the teenagers who posted profiles said they drank alcohol or used drugs or tobacco, 24% mentioned sexual behaviors, and 14% mentioned violence.

In a companion study, the researchers tested a brief e-mail intervention sent to 95 profile owners who said they were between 18 and 20 and whose MySpace profiles contained risky information. The e-mail was sent on behalf of a physician who posted her own online profile. Three months later, the researchers compared the content of profiles posted by the 95 e-mail recipients with the content of 95 controls. In that time, 42% of those who received the e-mail took some type of action to make their profile more secure — by eliminating or reducing references to sex or substance abuse, or by changing their profile from public to private access — compared with 30% in the control group. The findings suggest that social networking sites not only can help to identify teenagers engaging in risky online behaviors, but can also be used to target interventions.

It is important to keep risks in perspective, according to a separate report commissioned by state attorneys general. After reviewing the research, the task force concluded that bullying and harassment — rather than sexual solicitations — remain the most common problems online. The teenagers most at risk for online harm, they conclude, are those who engage in risky behaviors offline.

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