Parents everywhere are familiar with the teen mantra: give me my space! However, these days there is quite a different meaning to that phrase. The days of teens wanting their walls plastered with posters or a lock on their door to declare their "space" are looking incredibly simple in the wake of the computer era. Now a new domain of independence, rebellion, and experimentation is available online, anytime, and with the availability of over 50 million "friends". Welcome to MySpace.com, a website of social interaction and endless opportunity, for better or worse.
Today's kids have grown up using computers, actively participating in and creating their new applications. Most parents would agree that their children's computer savvy is greater than their own. Not surprisingly, many parents are unaware of what their kids are doing on the computer. Those that are aware still may only understand a fraction of the terms and programs their children utilize. Increasingly, many kids are turning to the internet, not just for research for their schoolwork but as a social network. On MySpace.com, anyone may create a web page that may be used as a platform to post information, pictures, music, and facilitate conversations between users on the site. Any individual may interact with another once they are accepted as a "friend". These friends may or may not be someone the user already knows. A friend might be referred by another user, or may be someone who solicits a user.
As a pediatrician, I have multiple concerns about a child using this type of site. The biggest is for the child's safety. This issue has been highlighted in the news lately. Two of the more recent articles that caught my eye are worth mentioning. The first details a common prank by a couple of boys trying to create a girlfriend for their buddy. The girlfriend was just computer network fiction. In real life, however, the fictional network girl attracted the interest of a middle age man who set up a meeting with her for sexual contact. The boys showed up and called the police who arrested the man, a known pedophile.
The second episode detailed teens who had found each other on MySpace.com and planned a Columbine Anniversary Massacre. Fortunately, others who had been privy to these plans alerted authorities in time to prevent its execution. In both of these cases disaster was narrowly avoided, but with a population of over fifty million, it's clear the potential for similar episodes is large and not clearly predictable.
Next month we will discuss the various pitfalls that exist for a pediatric population on sites like MySpace.com.