Online, putting entire lives on view

What might seem private is actually available to anyone

February 11, 2006|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

AMERICANS — She's 16, goes to a Catholic girls school in Baltimore and thinks that "love comes and goes like the wind." And the photo she chose for her profile on MySpace.com - the one place she can show the whole world who she is - features her posterior in a polka-dot bikini.

Americans - from teens on up, and with varying degrees of decorum - are turning by the tens of millions to MySpace and similar social networking Web sites as a way to promote themselves, espouse their beliefs, showcase their talents, seek romance and make friends.

Through profiles, blogs and multimedia effects, users can reflect their personalities (or construct new ones) in an unmonitored forum that is part personal ad, part podium - seemingly intimate and private, but in reality as public as laundry hanging on the line.

Polka-dot bikini, for instance, may not have had MySpace's 43 million members in mind when she constructed her profile. But it's available to them and anyone else with an Internet connection, including her parents, college admissions officers, prospective employers or violent predators - all of whom, Internet safety advocates say, have made use of such sites as well.

This week in Baltimore, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County student was charged with beating to death a 27-year-old woman while on a first date they arranged through MySpace, the largest and most successful of social networking sites including Facebook.com, Friendster.com and Xanga.com.

When sensational cases like that grab the headlines, they overshadow what many see as the more common risks of such Web sites: how so many people, particularly teenagers, fail to grasp the implications of sharing private or intimate information, and open their lives to strangers.

For teens, blogging is of their generation. It is where they can assert their identity, proclaim their individuality, even rebel. Web sites like MySpace, some argue, have replaced the mall as their haunt of choice.

On it, they can connect, reach out to the popular crowd and make an impression. In doing so, they may cross boundaries, posting provocative pictures or written accounts of sex, drinking and drug use, real or imagined.

Like adults, many of whom have made their own Internet blunders, young people are lulled by the false sense of security sitting alone in the comfort of home provides. And they are less likely to have fully thought out the consequences of their actions.

"Many teens seem to have a false sense of privacy, and think that no adults, school officials or people involved in law enforcement will ever see their blog," said Parry Aftab, executive director of Wiredsafety.org, an Internet safety organization.

"This sense of privacy combined with peer pressure and the immediacy of posting leads them to post more outrageous content than they probably normally would."

"I've gotten a lot of messages from creepy guys: `Do you want to talk? Do you want to meet? You sound really cool,'" said Katie Gieron, 18, a member of MySpace and Facebook. "But I would never meet somebody online. I think that's a really weird way of meeting your future husband. Anyone can sound good online. It's really easy to lie."

"A lot of people use it for that purpose, but I think of it more as a way to keep in touch with friends and family," added Gieron, a Loyola College freshman from White Marsh.

Gieron doesn't put provocative photos of herself on her profile. "I think that's stupid, especially when you're in high school and don't have a lot of common sense. A lot of them are just very trusting, putting these scandalous pictures of themselves on and figuring that their parents aren't going to look at it."

In the wake of the killing that surfaced this week, Gieron said her mother called her yesterday and suggested she remove the name of her workplace from her file.

"When something becomes as popular as this is, you're going to have that one bonehead out of a million," said Jenna Dietrich, 27, a Baltimore real estate agent and MySpace member for six months. "MySpace is great, and it's really fun. People who use it should know you don't take candy from a stranger and you don't give out personal info on the Internet."

MySpace says it forbids anyone under 14 from using its site but has no way of telling whether people lie about their age. While it was not intended for teenagers when it started three years ago, they make up a large and fast-growing segment of its 43 million users.

A study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project late last year found that half of all teens - roughly 12 million - have created content for the Internet: either blogs, a personal Web page or other content. Girls 15 to 17 are the most likely to have a blog; 25 percent keep one. Of all teens online, 20 percent have created a blog, compared with 7 percent of adult Internet users.

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