- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

In 2007, this e-mail message landed in the MySpace profile of 95 unsuspecting teens. “Hi [MySpace user]. I’m Dr. Meg, an adolescent medicine doctor and researcher from the University of Washington,” it began.

After identifying herself through a Web link, “Dr. Meg” said, “I noticed something on your MySpace profile that concerned me.

“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?” Dr. Meg asked.

She suggested the MySpace user “consider revising” his or her profile.

She then raised a concern that the MySpace user was at risk for a sexually transmitted disease.

Testing can be done by “your doctor, the local health department, or a Planned Parenthood,” Dr. Meg wrote.

But “since you are probably pretty comfortable with the Internet, you may be interested in getting more information and even free testing using the Internet,” she wrote. Here’s a good Web site, she said, referring the reader to www.iwantthekit.org, which offers free testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis as part of a research study at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Meg ended her e-mail saying, “If you are concerned about getting this e-mail, please talk with your parents, health care provider, a trusted adult or you can e-mail back with any questions.”

My, my. I bet that e-mail was an eye-opener for the MySpace teens who read it. In fact, it was, according to a study about it.

But before I share those details, let me say I have really mixed feelings about this approach. I think we may be seeing the opening of yet another arena where parents end up tussling with professionals over access to their children’s education.

Surely some parents won’t mind their teens and young adult children being invited to get an STD test (and possibly get into a research study). Other parents, however, may not be so pleased. What do you think?

Here are details of the study, published in the Jan. 5 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Millions of teens use Internet social-networking sites for friendship and exploring their identities, sexuality and youthful experiences, wrote study co-author Dr. Megan A. Moreno, who is now with the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

However, many teens also display pictures and writings about “worrisome health risk behaviors” on their public profiles, she wrote. The goal was to see what would happen if these MySpace users got a single e-mail from a physician.

Dr. Moreno and her colleagues identified 190 active, public MySpace profiles of youths ages 18 to 20. The MySpace users lived in ZIP codes where there were few health care providers, and they all had multiple risk factors on their profiles, including sexually suggestive content and references to alcohol, drug and tobacco use.

Researchers sent the “Dr. Meg” e-mail to half the MySpace profiles and sent nothing to the second half.

The researchers checked the profiles three months later. Sexual references fell 14 percent on profiles that got the e-mail, but only 5 percent on the others.

Substance use references fell 26 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively, and the portion of profiles that were switched from “public” to “private” was 11 percent vs. 7 percent.

These results suggest that an e-mail intervention via social networking sites “is feasible and may be effective” to reduce displays of risk behaviors, Dr. Moreno wrote.

In her view, when teens took down materials about sex and substance use, they protected themselves from predators and future problems with employers and college application officers.

Changing a profile from public to private was seen as a good thing for similar reasons.

All in all, the study concluded, “Dr. Meg”-type e-mails could be a great way for public health professionals to connect with youth, since they could be targeted by age, geography and self-reported risky behaviors or health issues.

I can’t wait to see what you all think.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected] times.com.

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