print article
For optimal print results, please use Internet Explorer, Chrome or Safari.

Saying we did: when teens post the sordid details of their lives on the Internet

Teen's digital divide: private behaviour, public disclosure

New data has shed light on how teens use social networking Internet sites such as MySpace and Facebook to publicize the seamier sides of their lives. Of 500 randomly selected online profiles of people who reported their age as 18, 54% contained information on risky behaviours including substance abuse, violent behaviour, and sexual behaviour.

"We used to write down these things in our diaries," says Michelle Ybarra, MPH, PhD, and researcher at Internet Solutions for Kids, an American non-profit group exploring online youth behaviour. Of the generational shift from discreet personal admissions to full disclosure on the Internet, Ybarra says, "it's a huge shock for adults. They say to their kids: 'how can you put that out  there?'"

But teens do not see a personal-private divide  the same way as parents do. "From the kids' perspective, they think it's just friends accessing the information, which for the most part is true." Although meeting new people is an aspect to social sites, for the most part it is about connecting with people you already know, explains Ybarra.

Then teens realize the hard way it's a much bigger world than they anticipated. "It's fine when this information stays in the small world with friends. But then it's job or school interviews and suddenly all the wrong people know all about last weekend when you got drunk, fell down, and didn't know who you woke up with. Not exactly behaviour that inspires confidence in bosses or the Dean of the Harvard Law School."

Two issues: risky behaviour and posting details about risky behaviour

One recent study attempted an intervention on teens who were posting personal details. One hundred and ninety of these profiles were sent an e-mail from a physician noting the risky behaviour and suggesting a change to the displayed information. Information on where to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases was also provided. Nearly 14% of the email recipients deleted their postings on risky behaviours. A control group who were not sent an email deleted only 5% of suspect postings.

"We know the intervention reduced the postings, but we don't know if it reduced the actual behaviour," says Ybarra, adding the intervention probably worked in the sense that it revealed to teens that "the world is bigger than they realise." Ybarra also suspects a message from a physician "probably carries more weight than a message from a parent."

To Ybarra however, the risky behaviour is a bigger issue than digitally spilling the beans about it on Facebook. While there are risks tthat posting information on social sites might make a teen more vulnerable, "it's about the behaviours, not the posting. It's normal to experiment, but it is not normal to get drunk every weekend and post sexy pictures."

When teenagers are more public about these types of behaviours, it creates an opportunity for parents and others to have a positive influence. Ybarra explained, "On the good side, it can make parental monitoring easier. If your child or your friend is posting, you can tell what they are up to."

Social networking: another channel of communication for parents

Adolescence is often a trying time for parents and teens. Experts agree that one of the most important ways to help navigate through the rough patches is to keep communication open. Social networking sites are just one of the latest ways to do exactly that.

"Adults should get familiar with tools their kids are using. Go on Facebook and create your own profile," says Ybarra, noting parents becoming 'friends' with their kids online is not unusual. And while this might make teens think twice about what they are posting, parents should focus on the behaviour, which requires two-way communication that reading Internet posts alone cannot provide.

Moreover, Ybarra says teens have always had ways of concealing information about their lives from parents. "Some have two profiles: one for the parent and the 'real' profile, or the teen may even refuse a friendship from a parent online," she says. "But this is not new. The kid can say 'I'm going to Suzie's house' and she's off to Brad's. There has always been lying. As with bullying, the Internet does not cause these problems."


Megan A. Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH; Malcolm R. Parks, PhD; Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD; Tara E. Brito; Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH Display of Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace by Adolescents Prevalence and Associations Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(1):27-34.

Megan A. Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH; Ann VanderStoep, PhD; Malcolm R. Parks, PhD; Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD; Ann Kurth, PhD; Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH Reducing At-Risk Adolescents' Display of Risk Behavior on a Social Networking Web Site A Randomized Controlled Pilot Intervention Trial Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(1):35-41.

Kimberly J. Mitchell, PhD; Michele Ybarra, MPH, PhD Social Networking Sites Finding a Balance Between Their Risks and Benefits Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(1):87-89.