Fla. researcher finds most teens are safe online


Published: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 5, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Most underage users of MySpace.com don't display information or photos that could attract pedophiles, but a sizable percentage still post potentially provocative photos, a new study concludes.

The popular social networking site that connects almost 150 million users — about a quarter of them under 18 — has been met in recent years with disapproval from parents to teachers to law enforcement. Experts warn that sites like MySpace.com leave underage users prey to unwanted sexual advances from pedophiles and online stalkers if protections aren't taken.

"Kids are using MySpace responsibly. They are getting the message," said Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Patchin conducted the study with Sameer Hinduja, a criminology professor at Florida Atlantic University.

About 91 percent of those teens' profiles reviewed did not list full names, which could be valuable information to online predators. About 40 percent of youngsters on MySpace keep their profiles private and are only viewable to fellow MySpacers on their friends' list, the study showed.

However, not all youth are acting responsibly. The authors of the unpublished study did find that 5 percent posted pictures of themselves in bathing suits or underwear. Also, 15 percent of the profiles viewed showed friends in bathing suits or underwear.

The researchers randomly viewed 1,475 teenage profiles that are open to the public. No user was contacted directly, but researchers reported the information available on the profiles themselves.

MySpace assigns a number to each profile created. Researchers used a number generator to ensure that every profile was randomly chosen. The margin of error is plus or minus 0.5 to 2.5 percentage points.

"We hope that more parents, teachers and administrators join the ongoing discussion and realize that social networking sites, like MySpace, are not going away," Hinduja said.

MySpace has some safeguards in place, such as prohibiting youngsters 13 and under from setting up accounts and restricting users aged 14 and 15 to private accounts that are only accessible to the teen's list of friends.

Also, MySpace users who are 18 or older are banned from requesting to be on a 14- or 15-year old's friends' list unless they already know the youth's e-mail address or full name.

However, some underage users create false profiles and misrepresent their ages, Hinduja said.

The researchers say they were motivated to do the study after negative media scrutiny created a frenzy among parents and teachers to ban youngsters from using MySpace, said Patchin, who meets with parents and teachers five or six times a year to discuss online issues.

"We saw the media reports claiming that millions of kids were at risk on MySpace, but there were no definitive studies to back up the claims," Patchin said.

Parents who ban MySpace will only cause children to manage their MySpace account from school, the library or a friend's house, Hinduja said.

The researchers encourage parents to log online with their children and visit their child's profile with them.

Researchers also underscore several benefits that users gain from having MySpace profiles.

MySpace users learn HTML coding, are encouraged to write blogs, network with friends and find other MySpace users with similar interests. There are psychological benefits to be gained too, such as gaining a sense of identity and improved self esteem — all issues that teens struggle with, Patchin said.

"The benefits far outweigh any potential risks," Patchin said.

In a statement released to The Associated Press on Thursday, MySpace officials say they are "pleased to see that the study highlights that a large majority of teens are using MySpace responsibly and are applying common sense offline safety lessons in their online experiences."

The efforts made by law enforcement, various educational campaigns and lawmakers to raise awareness about online issues are resonating with Myspace users, said Hemanshu Nigam, the company's chief security officer.

The report confirms research currently under way at the New Hampshire-based Crimes Against Children Research Center, according to the center's Director David Finkelhor, who said his findings are not yet available.

"While the majority of children do seem to be protecting themselves, there are a substantial amount of under age users indicated in the study who are still putting themselves at risk," Finkelhor said.

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