Bangalore: The social networking profiles of young people in the US suggests risky behaviour such as substance abuse, violence and casual sex, a new study has found.
Although similar studies are yet to be conducted in India, experts say this could be an issue of some significance in a country where thousands of young people are active on social networking sites such as Orkut, MySpace and Facebook.
Studying a randomly selected sample of profiles of 18-year-olds on MySpace, a team of researchers, then at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, found that at least half of the 500 profiles displayed information that is suggestive of behaviour that could pose health risks.
Connecting people: Orkut is the most popular social networking site with a reach of 37.3% of India’s 49 million Internet users, followed by Facebook at 7.88% and MySpace at 1.58%.
In a report published in the January issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers have said this information could also attract the attention of sexual predators or jeopardize future employment prospects.
“Though we do not have specific data on teens’ Web profiles outside the US, we know that media has a huge influence on adolescents’ attitudes and behaviours,” said Megan A. Moreno, lead researcher and adolescent medicine physician, University of Wisconsin. “Teens who view other adolescents’ profiles that display risk behaviours may be influenced by these displays, regardless of their country of origin.”
Time spent on social networking sites has already become a concern in India. “We find there is an increasing level of argument between parents and adolescents about the time and intensity spent on this activity vis-à-vis other developmental activities,” said Shekhar P. Seshadri, child and adolescent psychiatrist, National Institute of Medical Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore. “We have to address this whether we like it or not.”
According to the study, MySpace has 200 million Web profiles, of which 25% belong to minors. In India, according to a Mint-Komli Media Pvt. Ltd study, Orkut, a social networking site owned by Google Inc., is the most popular with a reach of 37.3% of India’s 49 million Internet users, followed by Facebook at 7.88% and MySpace at 1.58%. Among Orkut users, 55.5% are between 18 and 24 years.
A quick search on MySpace India showed that there are at least 1,948 profiles of 18-year-olds; some 37,000 profiles of the same age are on Facebook.
The findings of the latest study are consistent with earlier, smaller studies. While the potential benefits of these sites—providing a venue for identity exploration and peer interaction—are obvious, researchers suggest investigation of content on these sites may provide insight into adolescents’ health and safety.
Seshadri said the whole issue of the so-called virtual identity needs a serious examination. “This is very much like leading a double life, almost akin to multiple personality disorder...how much of it is expression of unfulfilled realities, and how much of it is fantasy?”
He, however, agreed that there is huge potential for promoting healthy living through these sites.
In a related study, Moreno and colleagues conducted a pilot intervention trial among 18-20-year-olds who they thought were at risk. They sent a single physician email providing information regarding the risky nature of online personal disclosures. Three months after the intervention, they found 42% of the profiles had protective changes in them.
“We have every reason to believe that the intervention we employed would work elsewhere,” said the study’s co-author Dimitri A. Christakis.
Seshadri said preventive health promoting agencies should act as watchdogs and look for content that is “exploitative, inappropriate, psychologically problematic, sexualizing and incorrect as far as gender sensitivity is concerned.”
A limitation of the study is that since the age and behaviour displayed in the profiles are self-reported, they cannot be validated. But the larger objective of such studies, over a dozen of which have been done since the sites gained popularity, is to increase awareness and need for guidance on safe Internet use.
“Parents of my patients often tell me that they think social networking websites are a ‘teen scene’, or...they are worried about invading their children’s privacy by looking at their Web profile,” said Moreno.
These websites are public; that is part of their appeal. “I hope these studies will empower parents to view their child’s online profile and discuss what they see there.”