- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2007

The majority of American teenagers use social-networking Web sites, but most limit access of their profiles to their friends, a new study shows.

Fifty-five percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 say they use social-networking Web sites, according to the report released today by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which conducted phone interviews with 935 teens.

The use of social-networking sites — defined by the study as “an online place where a user can create a profile and build a personal network that connects him or her to other users” — has ballooned in recent years, giving rise to concerns that posting photographs and personal information online makes underage users attractive targets for Internet predators.

More than half of teens who visit social-networking hubs have created an online personal profile. Of those, 66 percent say their profile is not open to all Internet users.

“There is a widespread notion that every American teenager is using social networks, and that they’re plastering personal information over their profiles for anyone and everyone to read,” said Amanda Lenhart, who co-wrote the study with Mary Madden. “These findings add nuance to that story — not every teenager is using a social-networking Web site, and of those that do, more than half of them have in some way restricted access to their profile.”

The overwhelming majority of social-networking teens — 91 percent — rely on the sites to keep in touch with friends they see often, while 82 percent use them to stay connected with friends they see less frequently. Forty-nine percent say they use the sites to make new friends.

Additional motives vary significantly by the sex of the user. Older boys ages 15 to 17 are more than twice as likely as older girls to use social-networking sites to flirt with someone — 29 percent of boys, compared with 13 percent of girls, the study found.

Teens told study authors that profiles on social-networking sites are more appealing when updated frequently. Forty-eight percent visit sites once or several times a day; 32 percent visit the sites one or more times a week; and 20 percent do so every few weeks or less often.

MySpace.com is the most popular social-networking site, with 85 percent of teens saying they use it most often. Facebook comes in second place at 7 percent.

MySpace in particular has been a source of worry for parents, schools and law enforcement, because it is open to everyone and gives users free rein in creating their profile and network. Until September, Facebook was open only to users affiliated with a high school, college or employer. Both sites invite users to share pictures and personal information.

Despite parents’ fears, a separate, recent analysis of nearly 1,500 teenagers’ MySpace profiles concluded that most were using the site responsibly. Ninety percent did not use their full names, and 40 percent keep their profiles closed to everyone but their friends, according to the unpublished study conducted by Sameer Hinduja of Florida Atlantic University and Justin Patchin of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Both MySpace and Facebook include pages with safety tips, warning users to be cautious about revealing personal information and to be wary of other users they don’t know. Still, the MySpace study included a worrisome finding: Five percent of users with public profiles have pictures of themselves in bathing suits or underwear posted on their pages.

Such photos are problematic because they are capable of harming one’s reputation or, worse, attracting a potential online predator, according to Larry Magid, co-author of “MySpace Unraveled: A Parent’s Guide to Teen Social Networking.”

But the benefits of social networking outweigh potential problems, Mr. Magid said.

“The combination of social networking and instant messaging is going to help cement lifelong relationships” in addition to promoting self-expression, he said.

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