MySpace travels: Teens talk about everything on popular Web site

Monday, January 16, 2006
(Photo illustration by Diane L. Wilson)

A 17-year-old Jackson High School student's MySpace Web site contains a message from a friend suggesting "sex, dancing and a lot of margaritas" sounds appealing for upcoming weekend plans.

On a 16-year-old Cape Girardeau Central High School student's MySpace Web site, a message from a friend asks if the girl is still "smokin' reefer," referring to marijuana.

Other area teens' MySpace Web sites have comments about getting drunk at parties, doing drugs and personal sexual encounters.

On these easily accessed Web sites, teens are able to post pictures, feelings and share information about their favorite bands and movies.

MySpace.com has nearly 42 million subscribers worldwide. Ninety percent are between the ages of 14 and 30. According to research done by Nielsen Net Ratings, MySpace had a 752 percent growth in its number of visitors, ages 12 to 24, to the site in the past year.

To register on the free site, users must be at least 14 years old. They can set up their own site with photos and various backgrounds and post messages to other users. Basically MySpace.com is a virtual social hangout for teens.

Cape Girardeau police detective Brad Smith said while MySpace and similar sites are intended to be entertaining and a unique way to network with other teens -- these sites can be dangerous.

"Predators can search these sites, looking for any student who is willing to speak to them," Smith said.

On MySpace.com, students can express feelings, likes and dislikes, any problems with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, Smith said. "Predators look for these types of weaknesses to gain trust and friendship from teens. Once the trust has been made, it is very easy for the predators to increase their relationships with these teens."

The terms of agreement that users must sign before joining MySpace. com say personal sites may not contain telephone numbers, street addresses or last names.

But according to USA Today, in September a 16-year-old girl from Port Washington, New York, was sexually assaulted by a 37-year-old man, who had tracked the girl down at her after-school job. The girl had listed her place of employment on her MySpace profile.

Users can easily search for other MySpace members who share similar interests. Searches can be done to find members who go to the same school.

A search for Cape Central, Jackson and Scott City High School 16- and 17-year-old students brought up more than 150 users.

While teenage users are familiar with sites like MySpace -- and similar ones like it -- many parents and school administrators are unaware that these sites exist.

"I did not know this site existed, but I'm not surprised," said Dr. Mike Cowan, Central High School principal.

Cowan said students are not allowed to use school computers for personal matters. "As far as after school, they are no longer under our jurisdiction," Cowan said. "We certainly encourage healthy lifestyles and we would encourage our parents to be aware of these types of sites."

Jackson High School junior Emily Courtaway has been a member of MySpace for a few months. Her site has a pink background with several photographs of herself and her friends. She lists her favorite bands on the Web site and has several messages from her friends.

"I didn't really get into it until lately," she said. "My mom doesn't know I have a site. I don't think she really cares because she knows I won't do something ridiculous on it."

Emily's site doesn't contain any information her mother should be concerned about.

"I feel like my daughter has enough sense not to put things on there that she shouldn't," said Emily's mother, Debbie Houghton, who only recently learned of her daughter's involvement on MySpace.

As for classmates who have messages referring to drug use and alcohol consumption, Emily thinks some students don't realize the information is readily available for anyone to read. While the MySpace user terms of agreement state personal sites may not contain last names, several area teens' sites list their first and last names.

"Some kids really take it overboard with their talk of drinking and doing drugs," she said. "If that is the bad impression people want to put out, so be it."

Smith said the police department can't legally do anything about teenagers posting messages about drugs or alcohol.

"It's basically freedom of speech," Smith said. "Anyone can go on these types of sites and post pretty much anything they want."

If the police department receives a call about any threats posted on these Web sites, then the school's resource officer will get involved, Smith said.

"Any type of bullying found online, that's when we'll go in and start looking closer at the issues," Smith said. "If a parent, teacher or anyone calls in the station expressing concern of a certain site I will look at it. I have had calls on Web sites like these in the past."

Smith believes area schools need to include a course that teaches students the dangers of the Internet.

"Parents should always put the home personal computer in a spot where the monitor can be seen by anyone at anytime, and never let the child have a computer in their room," Smith said.

"I mainly use MySpace to pass time when I'm bored," Emily said. "I enjoy MySpace because I listen to unknown bands, and I like to talk to my friends, both from school and those who live far away."

MySpace originally began as a place for independent musicians to market their music. Cape Girardeau singer Mike Renick's band has been a registered MySpace member for almost a year. The band's site contains show dates and promotes its music by uploading songs for visitors to hear.

"MySpace allows you to reach people worldwide," Renick said.

Recently New Orleans musician Jason Greenwald visited the Mike Renick Band's MySpace site. After the two musical acts spent several weeks messaging back and forth, the groups arranged a show date in Cape Girardeau.

"He came up here and opened for us, and now he wants us to come play in New Orleans with him," Renick said. "That networking wouldn't have happened without MySpace."

Renick said MySpace is also a good place to get feedback for the band's music.

"I don't think the site has to be for musicians," Renick said. "I like the fact that people who aren't musicians but love music have access and are able to interact and give opinions about the music they hear on MySpace."

Other similar sites like MySpace, Xanga.com and LiveJournal.com, also attract teenage users but only have about one-fifth of the users of MySpace.

jfreeze@semissourian.com

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