By Richard Freed, Ph.D.
Web Exclusive - February 13, 2007
The meteoric rise in popularity of Internet-based social networks such as MySpace has given the media research community little time to examine how these sites impact youth. Child health organizations have therefore not yet developed recommendations for children's use of them. While such guidelines are being created, you need to be aware of problems associated with these sites so you can make informed decisions about them.
The most frequently accessed social networks are MySpace, Facebook, and Xanga. These sites allow members to set up an online profile in which they post pictures and written commentary about themselves and other subjects. Users also post their comments on each other's profiles, and communicate with one another through email and chat functions provided by the services. The sites also provide entertainment, as audio and video clips are available for download.
Social networks are a place where adults and children commingle, as the sites are popular with both age groups. Many youth now consider social networking to be an indispensable part of their lives, and spend a lot of time conversing on them with real world and cyber world friends. Most social networks, according to the companies that run them, state that their services are not for children, only teens and adults.1-3 However, these sites don't have effective means of preventing underage users,4 and as a result, many preteens wander around MySpace and other social networks.
While the kids I work with as a child psychologist generally view social networks as a positive phenomenon, their parents often express concerns about them. These concerns are appropriate, in light of the following aspects of social networks:
- Exposure to pornography: One issue regarding social networks is that they give children access to hardcore pornography. A recent investigation by the Massachusetts's Attorney General's Office found sexually explicit images on Xanga.5 I had a similar experience when first trying the site. From Xanga's home page, I clicked once on a link promising the site's featured content. I clicked one more time on the picture of a user and was exposed to still pictures of naked men. One more click provided numerous moving and still scenes of hardcore pornography.6-9 Likewise, in my first few minutes of using the most popular of the social networking sites, MySpace, I was unwittingly exposed to sexually explicit pictures. I clicked onto the picture of a member who had an icon under her picture blinking "Online Now!" Immediately popped up moving, close-up footage of a woman thrusting her naked back end at the camera.10
- Marketing: The majority of social networks are advertiser supported. Marketers track children's movements on these sites, and electronically modify their pitch to increase the chances of making a sale.11 Many of the food products sold on these networks are ill-suited in the context of an epidemic of child obesity. Burger King, Wendy's, Sprite, and Coke all have sites on MySpace.12-15 Kids become "friends" with the "King" on Burger King's site, or email the Coca-Cola polar bears on Coke's site.16 Social networks provide ample opportunities for fast and junk food sellers to develop relationships with children, branding their fatty and high-sugared fare in more interactive ways than print, radio or TV advertising allow.
- Perpetrators: The presence of sexual predators on social networks has gained a lot of press in the popular media and is an issue that parents report great concern about.17 So far, fortunately, there have been very few incidents of predators actually gaining physical contact with a child they met through a social network.18 The issue remains a concern, however. Adults can masquerade as children on such sites, find out where they live, and attempt to meet kids. A recent study found that about 7% of teen MySpace users had been approached for a sexual liaison; nearly all of them reported successfully blocking the person's attempts to reach them.19 And an investigation of Xanga found adults attempting to get in touch with minors, with some of these contacts being inappropriate in nature.20
- Profane Content: Much of the content on social networks is crude, and shows up in unexpected places. The fast food company Wendy's official site on MySpace provides members a place to post their comments. One 14-year-old user writes, "F*** YOU YOU F***IN' F***... U SUCK D***!!!!!!!!!!"21 Surely, children can come across such language scribbled on a bathroom wall. However, profane content is commonplace in popular social networking sites, and many parents have concerns about their children spending time in such an environment.
What to do About Social Networks
For parents deciding what to do about children's use of social networks, there are two basic choices: deny access to such sites completely, or determine an age when you will allow your kids to gain access to them. This is no doubt a difficult decision, and one that families will have to make for themselves. One reason why parents' choices are limited is that problems associated with social networks are generally endemic to the sites. There aren't computer-based parental controls that can prevent children from accessing problem content within the sites.
If you don't want your children using social networks, explain to them the reasons behind your decision. Parental controls available from your Internet Service Provider may allow you to block access to such sites, or you may purchase software capable of this function. However, be aware that Internet-savvy children can often circumvent these limits. Moreover, some schools and libraries—apparently unaware of the problems with these sites—allow children access to social networks. For this reason, parents will have to rely upon lower-tech limits. These include providing children Internet safety rules, and placing the computer your child uses in a central location where you can monitor it. Additionally, children need to follow your online rules or risk losing their Internet privileges.
If, on the other hand, you decide to let your children use social networks, you must determine at what age they will be able to do so. This is a difficult decision considering the problems associated with them. The sites themselves have age guidelines: Facebook and Xanga state that children should be at least 13 to access the sites, while MySpace claims that persons should be at least 14 to use the service.22 However, there appear to be benefits to postponing children's use of these sites. Kids, as they grow older, generally become more resistant to marketing influences and are better able to handle solicitations from strangers.
If you choose to allow your children to access social networks, there are rules they should follow. Youth should not reveal personal information in areas of the site that can be accessed by the public, such as their profile. This includes their full name, picture, school name, email address, and other contact information. Unfortunately, research consistently finds that many, if not most, children don't follow this rule.23 It is quite difficult for kids (and adults for that matter) to talk about themselves without revealing personal information. Furthermore, children often seek relationships with others on social networks, so it makes sense they will reveal personal information.
Such issues demand that parents monitor the information that children post publicly on social networks. Your kids should be prepared to share their profile information with you. Profiles are publicly available and are in a different category than the private email communications children have on social networks. Review your child's profile to ensure that no personal information is present, and to make certain it is not sexually provocative or otherwise inappropriate. Kids should be made aware that information on social networks can be accessed by strangers, their schools, and other authorities.
If your child uses social networks, have them employ privacy controls. Such controls allow members to designate that their profile not be available to the general public. Instead, the only persons who have access to the child's profile are those that the child has chosen can do so. Additionally, it's a good idea to limit children's time with entertainment screen media—which would include social network use along with TV and video games—to the 1-2 hours per day suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics.24
As a final matter, children who are allowed to use social networks should agree to inform parents of uncomfortable experiences they have while on the sites. As mentioned, adults sometimes approach children for sexual encounters on these sites. An increasing number of children also face "cyberbullying," or incidents of harassment, while on the Web.25 Unfortunately, evidence indicates that many children keep quiet about such uncomfortable experiences.26 For this reason, do your best to keep the lines of communication open between you and your child.
A Concluding Thought
Children have turned to social networks in part because we, as a society, are not giving or encouraging them the opportunities to congregate elsewhere. For example, youth don't have the chance to socialize outside as much because kids today spend much less time outdoors than generations before them.27 Many parents are fearful of letting their children out of the home; this may be due in part to the news media's coverage of children that focuses heavily on violence and crime.28
Youth may also not be allowed to invite peers over as often as kids a decade or two ago. Parents are working longer hours than ever before,29 and when parents are at work, they often don't allow their kids to have friends over. The one place where children may feel free to gather is online.
Hanging out on social networks is also problematic given the issue of obesity that is afflicting more and more of our nation's youth. Not only are junk and fast food makers advertising to youth on these sites, but also social network use is sedentary in nature. The old-fashioned experiences of kids walking to the park, riding bikes to each other's houses, or playing a pick-up game of basketball are better suited to a healthy lifestyle.
If we, as parents and a society, believe that social networks are not the best places for children to spend time, then we need to do more than set computer limits on kids. We must also give youth other means of spending time with one another. Communities should supply safe parks and play spaces that accommodate the interests of both younger and older children. Additionally, we, as parents, must try to provide our kids many opportunities to interact with peers—including informal gatherings and other group activities. As our children grow older, we should also allow them the freedom to explore the real world, not just the virtual one.
1. MySpace.com, "Where do I report underage users?" (2006): http://www.myspace.com/....
3. Xanga.com, "Xanga Help" (13 July 2006): http://help.xanga.com/..
4. Jia Lynn Yang, "Can this man make MySpace safe for kids?" (30 June 2006): Available from CNN Money: http://money.cnn.com....
5. Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, "AG Reilly Demands Changes to Xanga.com Website to Protect Children from Online Predators" (28 August 2006): http://www.ago.state.ma....
6. Xanga.com, "Welcome to Xanga!" (16 August 2006): http://www.xanga.com/Default.aspx?.
7. Xanga.com, "Featured Weblog Entries" (16 August 2006): http://www.xanga.com/FeaturedContent.aspx.
8. Xanga.com, "secret_in_a_b0x's Xanga Site" (16 August 2006): http://www.xanga.com/...item.html.
9. Xanga.com, "Wafflehairs" (16 August 2006): http://www.xanga.com/wafflehairs.
10. MySpace.com, "Roxy" (15 August 2006): http://profile.myspace.com....
12. MySpace.com, "Welcome to the King's Court: The virtual home of the Burger King" (2006): http://www.myspace.com/burgerking.
13. MySpace.com, "Smart: WendySquare" (2006): http://www.myspace.com/wendysquare.
14. MySpace.com, "Sprite" (2006): http://www.myspace.com/sprite.
15. MySpace.com, "Coca-Cola Bear" (2006): http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?...friendid=98674362.
16. See Notes 12 and 15.
17. Larry Rosen, "Adolescents in MySpace: Identity Formation, Friendship and Sexual Predators" (June 2006): http://www.csudh.edu/psych/Adolescents....
18. David Walsh, "MySpace and Your Kids" (2006): Available from MediaWise with Dr. Dave: http://www.mediafamily.org....
19. Larry Rosen, "First Major Study of MySpace Suggests Sexual Predator Reports in the Media Overblown/Unfounded—Parental Ignorance of Teen Activities on Site is High" (2006, June 26): http://www.csudh.edu/psych/....
20. See Note 5.
21. See Note 13.
22. See Notes 1-3.
23. See Note 19.
24. American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "Media Violence," Pediatrics, 108, no. 5 (2001): 1222-1226.
25. Janis Wolak, Kimberly Mitchell, & David Finkelhor, "Online Victimization of Youth: Five Years Later" (2006): Available from The Crimes Against Children Research Center, University of New Hampshire: http://www.unh.edu.
26. See Note 25.
27. Dennis Cauchon, "Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors" (12 July 2005): Available from USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com....
28. Dale Kunkel, "The News Media's Picture of Children" (1994): Available from Children NOW: http://www.childrennow.org....
29. Arlie Hochschild, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work (New York: Owl Books, 2001), xxi.
Richard Freed, Ph.D. is a child psychologist who lives in Walnut Creek, California with his wife and daughter. To find out about his upcoming book, visit www.MediaSafeYourHome.com.