I Need My Space!
By Cindy Long
When Caitlyn McNeill started high school last year, she wished she could take all of her middle school friends with her. Unfortunately, only half of the 16-year-old’s friends joined her at Northern High in Owings, Maryland, while the other half went to school in the neighboring town. They still manage to keep in close touch, chatting almost as often as they did when they walked the halls and ate lunch together. The only difference is that now they hang out on MySpace.com, the Web site that has become the 21st century’s answer to the 1950s soda shop.
Caitlyn McNeill is a savvy Internet user and regular visitor to MySpace. "I go on MySpace every chance I get," she says.
Caitlyn and her friends log on to MySpace to catch up with each other, post bulletins about what’s new, and chat about friends, school, weekend plans, and, of course, boys. They decorate their MySpace pages the way they might decorate their bedrooms, complete with colorful, patterned backgrounds and photos; Caitlyn’s page is greenish-blue with a star pattern.
"It’s bright and really cute,” she says. Along with posting pictures of themselves and their friends, they link to videos and MP3 files. “My friend has a video from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, where Will and Carlton are doing a dance,” says Caitlyn. “It’s hilarious.”
It’s all part of the social networking revolution, in which users build personal pages and use those pages to share information, chat online, and keep in touch with others. Hundreds of such sites exist, but MySpace leads the way. It’s the third most visited Web site in the United States (behind Yahoo! and Google), averaging 36 million page views a day. Of the millions, many are students. Right now, more than half of American kids online use social networking sites, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project survey of teenagers.
Making connections is what powers the popularity of sites like MySpace, but it can also be cause for concern. News stories abound of online predators stalking young girls and boys by way of their profiles and luring teens, even preteens, into dangerous situations. Some kids post photographs of themselves in less-than-virtuous poses, in barely-there outfits—or worse, in incriminating situations—for all the world to see, including college admissions officers and potential employers. Students have also posted nasty comments about their classmates and teachers. In fact, more than one in three educators surveyed by the National School Boards Association (NSBA)—some 36 percent—said social networking sites have been disruptive at school.
But tell students about the concerns surrounding sites like MySpace, and the common refrain is one adults have been hearing from teenagers since the Stone Age: “You worry too much!” As media-savvy technophiles, they realize some of their peers misuse the Web, but they’re asking us to trust that most of them use it safely and responsibly. What’s more, research backs up their claims. Most students take steps to protect their privacy, and in some schools, safety and social networking have become part of the curriculum. “Simply blocking access to MySpace at school is not the end of the story,” said NSBA Executive Director Anne Bryant. “Students need to be educated about these sites and what the impact of misuse is on themselves as well as others.”
Kathy Schrock, who helps educate students on technology issues in Nauset Public Schools on Cape Cod, comes at the problems of social networking with firsthand experience. For an entire year, she had an “imposter page,” or fake profile, posted about her on MySpace by five students at a Catholic high school.
“The page they created for me was basically harmless, but it wasn’t authentic and I wanted it taken down,” says Schrock, the district’s administrator for technology, whose “Guide for Educators” is found at http://www.discoveryschool.com/ . “I had to call the teacher, who didn’t even know about MySpace. I wrote to the school, but the principal wouldn’t take care of it. MySpace wouldn’t even take it down.”
That was a year ago. The bogus page has since come down, and MySpace is now quick to remove imposter pages. In fact, its frequently asked questions include, “How do we remove an imposter profile for a teacher/faculty member” and “Someone is pretending to be me—what do I do?”
While high-profile cases involving teenagers creating imposter pages for teachers and classmates have surfaced (see this issue's "Savaged in Cyberspace " for examples), Schrock is more concerned about students’ safety. Her message to students is simple: if you have a profile, keep it private.
MySpace requires users to be at least 14, and profiles of MySpace users under 16 are automatically set to “private,” so only the users they’ve allowed access can view their profile, send instant messages and e-mails, or add them to their blog list. But kids routinely lie about their ages—either that, or there are a surprising number of high school freshmen and sophomores age 20 or above on MySpace.
Last June, MySpace announced that privacy options would be available to users of all ages and that all users could block others from contacting them, conceal their “online now” status, and prevent others from e-mailing direct links to their images. MySpace users 18 or older can no longer add users under 16 to their friends list unless they already know the person’s full name or e-mail address.
The new privacy options were announced after a 16-year-old girl tricked her parents into getting her a passport and then flew to the Mideast to be with a man she met on the site. It’s one of the most extreme stories—of which there are only a smattering, considering the tens of millions of young people who visit the site regularly.
How often is regularly? “I go on MySpace every chance I get,” Caitlyn McNeill says. She’s not alone. According to the Pew study, 48 percent of teens visit social networking sites at least once every day.
Most of Caitlyn’s MySpace habits align closely with the Pew findings, which show that young people are wise to the dangers posed by social networking sites. Caitlyn and her friends set their profiles to private; Pew found that 66 percent of teens have done the same. Caitlyn uses MySpace to keep in touch with her friends from school and to make plans; Pew found that 91 percent of teens use social networking sites to keep in touch with friends they see a lot, while 72 percent use the site to make plans with those friends. In fact, the tagline of the MySpace site is, “A place for friends.”
Caitlyn is also a fairly savvy Internet user. “There are a lot of creeps out there, and I know it,” she says. “I don’t let anybody add me to their friends list, and I don’t accept messages from anybody I haven’t met in person. Also, if your profile is set to private, the people at school you don’t like can’t find out information about you.”
Sarah Mortimer, who lives in New Hampshire, uses MySpace to keep in touch with friends both near and far. “Since I have switched schools a lot, I am able to keep in touch with kids from my old schools,” the 16-year-old says. “It’s just really nice to see someone I haven’t talked to in, like, 10 years and remember them from my childhood.” She has her profile set to private so “rapist killers don’t get me,” she says half-jokingly. But her profile also says she lives in Zimbabwe so that anyone searching in her town or ZIP code won’t find her.
That’s exactly the kind of Internet shrewdness Kim Conner, the computer teacher at Nauset Middle School, is trying to instill among her sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders. “One student put up Albert Einstein as his profile photo to help hide his identity,” Conner says. “I thought that was rather clever.”
Conner has worked social networking safety into the curriculum as a way to “make the kids aware of the different things that can happen when they use the sites without thinking,” she says.
As is the case in most districts, Conner and her students can’t access MySpace or other social networking sites at school, but she’s saved screen shots that she uses to demonstrate how profiles that aren’t set to private can reveal identifying details. For example, when kids allow their profiles and instant messages to be open, anyone can read plans they might make online. She uses the following as an example:
Nausetgirl (5:09:55): wotz ^? wnt 2 go out?
Warrior08 (5:09:56): yS, whr do wnt 2 go?
Nausetgirl (5:09:57): How bout the chocl@ Sparrow n Orleans?
Suddenly, anyone logged onto the page can see where the girls are meeting.
Conner also uses an example of a profile of a girl who thought she hadn’t posted anything identifiable, except for a photo gallery image of her wearing her school’s field hockey uniform.
But once students are aware of the dangers and are taught to think carefully about how they use sites like MySpace, Conner believes that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. “It’s really a great way for kids to stay connected outside of school,” she says, adding that sometimes students get online and help each other with homework or work on assignments together. But the main benefit of sites like MySpace is that they “allow young people to express themselves, be creative, and show their friends who they really are,” says Conner. “It gives them a common venue.”
Chris Luty, a senior at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, expresses himself on his MySpace profile with photos, videos, music files, and different fonts and backgrounds. Parents and teachers beware—what kids like Chris might find appealing about their profiles would probably cross the eyes of most adults. On many teen profiles, backgrounds are a blur of vibrant colors, patterns, and clashing, often unreadable fonts, splattered with links and images. But their friends can tell a lot about their sense of humor by the videos they post, or about their musical tastes by the bands they promote.
Chris’s profile includes an Adam Sandler video and videos of live performances by three of his favorite bands—Godsmack, +44, and Patent Pending. He says that all of his friends on MySpace are people he knows in “real life.” Otherwise, he says, “I’d have no idea who was sitting behind that keyboard.”
Kim Conner acknowledges that there have been problems with abuses of MySpace, but she says she approaches it with “the one bad apple doesn’t spoil the whole bushel theory.”
“Some really good things can come out of this,” Conner says. “It gives all students a way to connect and be together in a safe environment. MySpace can be a very safe and positive thing.”