Social networking sites may help identify at-risk adolescents and intervene

Social networking sites may help identify at-risk adolescents and intervene

Sex, substance use, and other risky behaviors are referenced by approximately half of teens on their public online profiles on a social networking site, according to an article released on January 5, 2008 in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals. In the same issue, a short, informative e-mail from a physician may reduce references of sex on these social networking sites.

Young people are the primary users of social networking websites, with high rates of Internet access. Specifically, according to the articles, more than 90% of adolescents have Internet access and approximately 50% are users of social networking sites. They highlight one site in particular: "MySpace, the most popular social networking site, regularly ranks among the world's 10 most popular Web sites and includes more than 200 million Web profile accounts, of which 25 percent belong to minors," write the authors. "Members of a social networking site create a personal Web profile that may contain images, text and audio. The social networking sites play an important role in adolescents' social lives as a place for identity exploration and peer group interaction."

While this exploration and interaction can be beneficial for adolescents, there are many risks associated with this increased information exchange, specifically related to sex, substance use, violence, and other risky behaviors, as they are displayed in a public venue. For instance, this information may attract unwanted attention from sexual predators, or complicate future potential employment.

To examine the prevalence of references to risky behavior on these social networking sites, Megan A. Moreno, M.D., M.S.Ed., M.P.H., and colleagues investigated 500 publicly available profiles between July and September 2007. By report, each profile belonged to an 18 year old living in the United States.

Of the total, 54% (270 profiles) referenced risky behaviors. This included 24% (120 profiles) that referenced sexual behaviors, and 41% (205 profiles) that referenced substance abuse, and 14.4% (72 profiles) that referenced violence. Overall, in comparison with men, women were less likely to reference violence. Additionally, more sexual references were associated with a reported sexual orientation other than "straight." References to church or religious involvement, or to active participation in a sport or hobby, were less likely to reference risky behavior.

According to the authors, this suggests that social networking sites may be a new method of identifying at-risk teens: "Given the popularity of social networking sites among teens and the high prevalence of risk behaviors displayed there, social networking sites can be explored as an innovative venue to identify, screen and ultimately intervene with adolescents who display risk behavior information."

Based on these conclusions, Dr. Moreno and colleagues released a second report investigating the potential for an online intervention. To do this, the team created a MySpace profile under the name "Dr. Meg," which stated information about professional qualifications and research interests. Then, 190 MySpace profiles were identified belonging to 18-20 year olds with three or more references to sexual behaviors or substance abuse, including at least one reference to tobacco and one reference to alcohol use. Each profile was randomly assigned to receive a single e-mail from the Dr. Meg profile, warning them of the risky information displayed, and providing additional clinical resources such as a website link related to sexually transmitted diseases.

At the start of the study, 54.2% of the profiles contained references to sex and 85.3% contained references to substance use. In observations three months after the e-mail was sent, the profile owners who received e-mails were more likely to have made protective profile changes (42.1%) in comparison to controls (29.5%). This included more profiles in which sex references disappeared completely, which was also more common in profiles receiving the e-mail (13.7%) in comparison to those that did not (5.3%). Analogously, references to substance abuse were reduced completely more often in the intervention group (26%) in comparison with the controls (22%). Additionally, more intervention profiles were set to "private" (10.5%) in comparison with controls (7.4%).

The authors note that this may be an effective intervention for at-risk teens as identified by these sites. "Our study illustrates that developing online interventions to reduce online risk behaviors is feasible, low-intensity and low-cost," they write. "Our findings suggest that some teenagers may be open to feedback regarding their Web profiles and subsequently alter online behaviors. Given the hazards associated with displaying risk behavior information, parents and health care providers should recognize the importance of social networking sites in adolescents' social lives, discuss social networking site disclosures with both younger and older adolescents and provide Internet safety resources."

Kimberly J. Mitchell, Ph.D., and Michele Ybarra, M.P.H., Ph.D., of the Crimes Against Children Research Center contributed an accompanying editorial in which they discuss the dual nature of social networking sites. "As with any new media technology, there are potential benefits and drawbacks to social networking sites," she writes.

They continue, noting that these sites "provide educational benefits to youth; they foster learning and the development of critical thinking skills that complement those taught in classrooms." They continue: "They also provide psychosocial benefits that facilitate identity development, enhance cognitive skills related to perspective taking, allow autonomy and serve as a form of social support, which may prove critical to youth who feel isolated, lonely or ostracized for any number of reasons."

"On the other hand, content on social networking site profiles may increase one's likelihood of being harassed or targeted with unwanted sexual solicitation; it may negatively affect one's future professional opportunities; and its images may portray risky health behaviors as normative. It is our job as professionals to understand these risks and benefits and to identify strategies that help youth reduce the former and increase the latter."

Display of Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace by Adolescents: Prevalence and Associations

Megan A. Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH; Malcolm R. Parks, PhD; Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD; Tara E. Brito; Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(1):27-34.

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Reducing At-Risk Adolescents' Display of Risk Behavior on a Social Networking Web Site: A Randomized Controlled Pilot Intervention Trial

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

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(1):35-41.

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Social Networking Sites: Finding a Balance Between Their Risks and Benefits

Kimberly J. Mitchell, PhD; Michele Ybarra, MPH, PhD

Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2009;163(1):87-89.

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How social media is affecting teens (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Women health