Timely warning for teen social networkers

WITH the boom that has taken over the internet in the form of social networking, teens and unsuspecting users have been issued with a timely warning to watch their backs and their profiles from the peering eyes of sexual predators.

A recent study carried out by the University of Washington and the Seattle Childrens Hospital, analysed the content of 500 online social network profiles during a three month summer period in 2007.

The data threw up some astonishing references that almost half of teenagers refer to sex, substance abuse or other risky behaviours on their publicly available profiles.

Senior researchers have suggested that such content could attract unwanted attention from sexual predators or jeopardise their future employment prospects.

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The study took data from the online profiles who were 18 years old and living in the United States and produced some of the following figures;

* 54 per cent of the profiles contained references to risky behaviours.

* 25 per cent mentioned sexual behaviours.

* 44 per cent referred to substance abuse.

* One in three spoke about alcohol use

* 14 per cent referred to violence.

The study went on to report that it found that teenagers, whose profiles indicated religious involvement or had references to active participation in a sport or hobby, were less likely to contain any of the above mentioned information.

“Given the popularity of social networking sites among teens and the high prevalence of risk behaviours displayed there, social networking sites can be explored as an innovative way to identify, screen and ultimately intervene with adolescents who display risk behaviour information,” the authors say.

In an effort to deliver a convincing message to online users and social networkers, the same researchers created a MySpace profile with the user name “Dr Meg”, in which they outlined their medical credentials and research interests.

Some 190 MySpace profiles of teenagers that contained three or more references to sexual behaviours or substance abuse responded. “Dr Meg” randomly sent a single email from their site to half of the profile owners, advising them their profile contained risky information.

Prior to the email, sexual content was found on 54 per cent of the online profiles and 85 per cent mentioned substance abuse.

Reviewing the same profiles some three months later found that 42 per cent of the profile owners had made protective changes to their profile. References to sex disappeared completely in 15 per cent of the teenage profiles.

“Our study illustrates that developing online interventions to reduce online risk behaviours is feasible, low-intensity and low- cost,” the authors conclude.

The authors, in a final note ,suggest that ; “Content on social networking profiles may increase one’s likelihood of being harassed or targeted with unwanted sexual solicitation and it may negatively affect one’s future professional opportunities”.