Many teenagers cleaned up their MySpace profiles, deleting mentions of sex and booze and boosting privacy settings, if they got a single cautionary e-mail from a busybody named "Dr. Meg."
The e-mail was sent by Dr. Megan Moreno, lead researcher of a study of lower-income kids that she says shows how parents and other adults can encourage safer Internet use.
Her message read in part: "You seemed to be quite open about sexual issues or other behaviors such as drinking or smoking. Are you sure that's a good idea? ... You might consider revising your page to better protect your privacy."
Parents, and even doctors, who care for adolescents "should feel very comfortable looking up" their children's or patients' profiles on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, said Moreno, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It's not creepy or an invasion of privacy, she said, but more like reading posters on their walls or slogans on their T-shirts.
Young people don't consider the consequences of posting their drinking habits and sexual behavior, Moreno said. Several wrote back to "Dr. Meg" saying they had no idea their pages could be viewed by anyone. Such social networking sites have privacy settings, but they're not always used.
The sites can be a window into a teenager's world.
"People who work with teens often have this idea that teens are hard to reach," she said. But many young people publicly post their hobbies and interests on MySpace or Facebook and expect people to look. "It can be a great icebreaker," she said.
The study, published in the January issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, shows adult supervision of MySpace can raise adolescents' awareness of how accessible their pages are, she said.
The researchers first located 190 MySpace public profiles in a single urban ZIP code, randomly selected from the 10 U.S. Census areas with the lowest average income because researchers wanted to target adolescents who might have less access to doctors. Moreno said she could not reveal the city because of privacy restrictions set by a study review board.
All the users said on their profiles they were 18 to 20 years old and their pages included three or more references to sex, drinking, drug use or smoking.
Half were sent the "Dr. Meg" e-mail; the other half weren't contacted.
After three months, 42 percent of those getting a "Dr. Meg" e-mail had either set their profiles to "private," meaning only people they'd chosen as MySpace "friends" could view it, or they removed references to sex or substance use. Only 29 percent of those in the group who had not been contacted by Dr. Meg made such changes over the three-month period.
Moreno said the results suggest the e-mail intervention had a positive impact on "the hardest-to-reach teens, which gives us great hope that a similar intervention could be used to reach teens as a whole."
In a separate study, Moreno and other researchers looked at 500 randomly selected MySpace profiles of 18-year-olds nationwide and found that more than half contained references to risky behavior such as sex, drinking and violence.
"The ones to me that were most surprising and most worrisome were the sexual references," said the doctor. "We often found males and females describing the circumstances around the loss of their virginity. Females would describe things males could do" to have a better chance of having sex with them. "They'd say, 'I like a guy who brings me flowers and takes me to dinner and (if you do that) I might consider having sex with you."'
Kids decorate their pages with beer logos, marijuana leaf icons and Playboy bunnies. Those counted in the research. But typically it was bold references in the teenagers' own words that researchers found.
"Clear and concise language: 'I got drunk last Friday,"' said Moreno, who is a 35-year-old mother of a baby and a toddler. She said she'll try to stay involved with her kids' computer use as they grow up.
Teenagers who refer to risky behavior on their MySpace pages put themselves at risk of online harassment or solicitation for sex, Kimberly Mitchell of University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, who wasn't involved in the studies, wrote in an accompanying editorial. They also may jeopardize future job prospects.
But social networking sites also give teens a chance to develop their identities, become independent and get support from friends.
"It is time to use the benefits offered by social networking sites to reach youth, perhaps in new and creative ways that were not available prior to the advent of these sites," Mitchell wrote.