MySpace: A Kid's Hangout, A Parent's Nightmare

Originally published in 2007

Today it seems that sites like MySpace are all the rage. These social networking sites where young people get together to share ideas and make connections with like-minded people are growing day by day.

Social networking sites are the result of the evolution of various web technologies, including the simple webpage. Creating a MySpace page is much easier than creating a webpage, and the resulting MySpace profile page is easier to find than any previous type of Internet publication.

The ideas behind MySpace are part of a new Internet framework and business model collectively called Web 2.0. As opposed to the original World Wide Web, which entailed companies and organizations creating content for users to visit their websites, Web 2.0 relies on user-created content to drive visitors to the site.

MySpace is the epitome of Web 2.0. The site's visitors can post a profile that can contain pictures, a biography, a list of movies and music they like, actual songs and video that play on the page, and many other things that help create an online persona.

But kids don't always tell the truth about who they are on MySpace. In fact, many people on MySpace post information about themselves that isn't true. This happens for many reasons.

Kids on MySpace love having an online alter ego. They get to pretend to be someone they aren't in real life. Someone with few real friends and limited social abilities can be a star on MySpace. They can have thousands of "friends" and portray themselves in any way they want, and no one would know the difference.

Kids also like the freedom to express themselves semi-anonymously in a public form. It's the equivalent to going to a dance club and portraying an image to complete strangers, only to shed that image once you leave the club. It helps boost the ego and many kids think this is just harmless.

But the effects caused by MySpace on kids are anything but harmless. There are many effects on children from exposure to sites like MySpace, some of them positive, like learning online social skills and learning to build communities, but many effects are negative, like "meeting" people who are unknown in real life, and heavy exposure to advertising and other commercial messages.

Because anyone can create a profile on MySpace, and the information on that profile doesn't need to be verified in order to be displayed to the world, anyone has the ability to create a profile with false pretenses. Just as we mentioned a child could create a profile with false information about themselves (they can make themselves be older and more hip than in real life), so can others such as online predators and other adults seeking attention from young children.

Although many stories about online predators exist in the press, the likelihood of a child being hurt by an online predator while on MySpace is very low. If we look at the total number of predators who have hurt a child on MySpace compared to the number of members on the site, the percentage is extremely miniscule. Children are also very astute when it comes to engaging in conversation with someone who may have the intention of hurting them.

Regardless of the low possibility of encountering a child predator online, or a child agreeing to engage in conversation or having a real life meeting with these people, dangers still do exist. Unlike in real life, strangers can mask their appearance, their vital stats, and their intentions. Anyone can easily pose as a 15 year old girl by saying they are 15 and female in their profile, and then posting pictures of a 15 year old girl. If this person contacts a child, or the child contacts this person, they'll be engaging in a conversation or "friendship" under false pretenses. Someone's true identity is difficult to discern while online.

Parents fear this loss of control; not knowing whom their children are talking to. Even if the parents know who their children are talking to, who knows if that person is who they say the are?

Many parents have taken it upon themselves to check their children's MySpace page from time to time, even going as far as getting their own MySpace account and visiting their child's page. Some parents also encourage their children to limit their MySpace "friends" to people they ve actually met in real life. This helps both the parents and the child regain control over the child s associations on the site.

Just like most other types of media outlets, social sites like MySpace are companies with the intent to make money. These sites do this by allowing advertisers to places ads on the site. Children roaming MySpace are likely to encounter at least 40-50 actual ads per visit to the site.

Advertisements aren t the only commercial messages on MySpace. The site's visitors also receive indirect ads in the form of links to bands and other content on the site. Most of the bands featured on the site's main pages have paid for their placement, and their intent is to sell albums and gain fans. This would be fine if the site wasn't hiding the fact that much of the content on the main pages is paid for. But by not placing a notice that "this is a paid announcement", the site's visitors are lead to believe that the featured band has been placed on the front page solely based on merit.

If a young adult is continually exposed to deceptive messages promoting a band or movie as "great" and "cool", the person will likely believe that message after repeated exposure. Of course, if the site made mention of the commercial nature of the advertisement, the site's visitors would be less likely to click on the link for more information.

It's important to educate children and young adults about MySpace's commercial nature. They must realize that anything they read, hear, or see on MySpace could have been placed there by someone who wants to sell them something.

Advertisers have also been known to create user profiles and masquerade as regular teens that just happen to be passionate about a particular band, TV show, or product.

Although there are positive effects of social networking sites such as MySpace, it's also important to realize that there are also negative effects. By educating children who lack the experience of dealing with these new community forums, parents and educators can help create a generation of technology-savvy, social people.

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