When Jessica Kellen was 12 years old, she met a boy on MySpace who said he was 17.
She had pretended to be 16, which allowed her to sneak past the site's rule that members have to be at least 14. Jessica, who's 14 now, describes her sixth-grade self as a "really shy kid." Conversing with a stranger on MySpace about the boy's family farm, parents and adolescent drama came easier than doing so with people she knew. And the virtual friendship helped boost her self-esteem in the real world — allowing her to make more friends at school.
“If I can do this on the Internet, why can't I do this in person?” realized Jessica, who lives in Centennial, Colo.
While horrifying headlines tie MySpace to teen suicide, violence — and especially sexual predators, research tells another story. Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, found that only 12 percent of teenagers actually rendezvous offline with an online friend in his recent survey of 482 teens. That finding jibes with similar nationwide studies.
The kids most at risk for encountering trouble on MySpace are the ones who are looking for it, Rosen said in an interview.
“But they would be the same kids going out there looking for it offline,” he said.
In his recent parenting book “Me, MySpace and I,” Rosen says that parents’ MySpace anxiety likely arises from their lack of understanding of what teens actually do on the social-networking site. A third of parents have never glimpsed their teen’s MySpace page — and three-fourths do so less than once a month, according to his research.
And what parents might not know about MySpace is that it can actually help their kids. Bolstered by interviews of more than 1,000 parents and 2,500 teens, Rosen’s research shows that the oft-stigmatized site can foster adolescent pursuits of true identity, friendship — and validation.
“Overall, based on my extensive research, the impact of the MySpace lifestyle on child and adolescent development has been positive,” Rosen writes in his book. “It has provided a safe forum for expressing feelings and appears to enhance relationships and psychological well-being.”
MySpace eases adolescence?
Rosen maintains that MySpace eases the coming-of-age process. About 80 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds log on weekly, according to Rosen's book.
Being social, the purpose of the site, is crucial to developing an identity. Adolescents adjust their behavior — and images — to positive and negative interactions with their peers. Rosen writes in his book that social flops, which can crush kids’ self-confidence, are easier to shrug off, and social successes are easier to achieve on MySpace. That’s especially helpful for socially challenged kids who forgo or flunk these trial-and-error personality tests in real life.
“Shy teens felt less shy and more honest online, which led to the accumulation of more MySpace friends and enhanced self-esteem,” Rosen writes.
Same goes for kids who struggle to fit in at school.
Skye Doran from Gresham, Ore., was a self-declared nerd in elementary school. In eighth grade, Skye went Goth, a subculture associated with anger, black accoutrements and Marilyn Manson. Then, her sophomore year, she turned “Emo,” a newer subculture tied to softcore punk bands like AFI and Hawthorne Heights, skin-tight jeans and long side-swept bangs draped over much of the face.
Today, Skye is 19 and describes herself as a Christian and a "skater chick who doesn't skate." She now mostly uses MySpace to meet people who live in Oregon and who could develop into real-life friends. But when Skye joined at 14, she made many out-of-state MySpace “friends,” who didn’t know or judge her, and who composed the social life that had never existed in Oregon.
MySpace “meant I had people to talk to,” she said. “It meant I could for sure associate with people who didn’t have a lot of friends.”
Just like adults might find it easier to say something in an e-mail or on instant messenger to a friend, sweetie or stranger, kids feel more comfortable being themselves on MySpace.
Psychologists call it the “disinhibition effect”: People reveal more about themselves from behind a computer screen, especially to a virtual friend who will always be a stranger in real life. And making friends can be easier online because it requires trust, which can be built around repeated, honest online conversations, and mutual interests, which can be matched on MySpace pages.
So kids on MySpace do what they’ve always done in the real world: Try to craft an image, look cool and chat with friends, said C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who researches how new media has become central to teen life.
“I'm seeing the same old teenage stuff in different packaging,” she said.
MySpace can even help kindle — OMG! — teen romance. Brad Dupuie, 16, of Orange County, Calif., said the social-networking site has made it easier to hang out with girls from school. They sometimes leave their phone numbers on his MySpace page. “Half the time you call, half the time you don’t,” Brad said.
When he got into MySpace his freshman year, his social life was starting to take off. Formerly known as the chubby, funny kid, Brad had “dropped some of his baby weight” — and joined the football team at Corona del Mar High School. “I was becoming more popular in my mind and less self-conscious of myself,” he said.
Brad now mostly uses his cell phone to keep in touch. He doesn’t spend much time on MySpace, but will use the site to maintain real-life friendships. Like other teens and especially college students, Brad is turning his focus to Facebook. “Facebook becomes a brand-new start and it becomes a sign of maturity,” said Pascoe.
Brad isn’t shy about sharing his MySpace page with his parents. He’ll even show them pictures of girls he likes. Rosen said most teens — about 70 percent — don’t mind their parents seeing their profile.
“It shows most of them are using it in a fairly health way,” he said.
‘Where it actually counts’
That can include talking to strangers. More than half of adolescents — about 55 percent — do so on the Internet, according to Rosen’s book.
Seeking online friendships on social-networking sites doesn’t raise the risk of being molested offline, according to a study published in the February/March issue of the journal American Psychologist. But the odds did increase for kids who exhibited several risque online behaviors including being rude, sending personal information to strangers — and talking about sex to strangers.
“MySpace is a means for kids to express themselves,” said Laurence Steinberg, author of "You and Your Adolescent," and a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Troubled kids will express themselves in ways to indicate how troubled they are.”
Jessica’s parental units eventually busted her for talking to the older boy on MySpace. She was “really mad” at first. But Jessica has since calmed down — and now uses MySpace to maintain friendships with kids from her soccer team and school. She isn’t really bothered that her parents are now on her list of 40-some MySpace “friends.”
“I don’t say bad stuff on my comments,” Jessica said. “I tell them everything.”
Her MySpace profile also allows her to express herself through blogs, pictures documenting her life and page designs that she changes about once a week. She recently transformed her profile from a “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” theme to anti-war. Jessica says that her MySpace page reflects that she has “more personality.”
“Before it was boring and now it’s really different and exciting,” she said.
Jessica doesn’t care to meet strangers on MySpace anymore. She said a Web safety seminar at school and talks with her parents helped change her mind.
“In person is where it actually counts — not with a stranger on the Internet,” she said.
Are you concerned about what your adolescent is doing on MySpace — but you're unsure how to broach the topic? Shoot me an e-mail with your burning questions about parenting a MySpacer — and I'll go to the experts for answers. Some responses could be published in another story.