MySpace or Yours?

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

July-August 2006

QUESTION:  What (1) is only two years old? (2) is more popular than Google? (3) houses over 60,000,000 people? (4) has more than 150,000 people move in every day? (5) has been featured on every major news outlet? (6) makes high school girls run home to visit it? And (7) scares most parents?
ANSWER:  MySpace.

MySpace is a virtual community, or a meeting place in cyberspace.  It is only one of thousands, but it has experienced more rapid growth in its brief existence than any other Internet site.  As of January 2006 it is the 7th largest English language website. Nearly half of MySpacers are under 18.  And of those, most are under 16.  Log on and ask to see a listing of MySpacers from your local high school and middle school. You will be amazed.

If you are over 40 you may need a map to MySpace.  It is both a simple design and a complex community.  Visualize a child’s bedroom with posters of rock stars, loud music and homework strewn across the bed. Now add a combination yearbook, personal diary, and social club and you have MySpace.  A typical MySpace webpage includes a profile with personal information, pictures, music, fancy backgrounds, games, and videos.  Most people, however, use the site for communication.  They post their thoughts in bulletins, comment on other people’s bulletins and journals, instant message, e-mail, blog and, most importantly, collect friends.  Anyone wanting to be someone’s friend has to ask permission and once accepted, becomes part of a social circle.  Each person also gets to select their “Top 8” friends whose pictures reside on their webpage.

If it seems a bit overwhelming, that is probably because you are not a member of the Net Generation.  If you were born after 1979, you grew up with videogames, the Web, e-mail, instant messaging and, most certainly, the art of multi-tasking.  Children often send their first e-mail message before they go to preschool.  For pre-teens, a family dinner at a restaurant is accompanied by a Game Boy.  It is nothing for a 15 year-old to talk with five friends, do homework, listen to music, and never move away from the computer screen.  The Net Generation is all about technology and communication.  With so many young people using MySpace, the Net Generation has become the MySpace Generation.

Just this month I completed a study of over 1,000 MySpacers.  The results are fascinating.  First off, adolescents and young adults spent an AVERAGE of 5 days a week and 3 hours per day on MySpace.  Over two-thirds are on MySpace 6 or 7 days a week.  Second, the average MySpacer has 278 “friends” including 37 close friends, over half of whom they have never met. Third, over 25% have had to block someone from their MySpace page, mostly for some form of stalking behavior. Finally, one in three admitted that their MySpace activity has negatively affected their schoolwork, their family life or both.

My study also showed that spending more time on MySpace was correlated with more depression, more Internet addiction, less perceived family support, and lower self-esteem.  In addition, the youngest MySpacers were the most addicted to the Internet, had the lowest self-esteem, had more negative effects of the Internet on schoolwork, and had more negative effects on interactions with family.  However, on the positive side, having more online “friends” was related to having higher self-esteem, reduced shyness and more perceived honesty with friends.

So, on balance, as with most online activities, there are both positives and negatives.  Given the popularity of MySpace, I am sure that you are encountering issues brought up by your young patients or parents of those patients.  There are several issues that I think are critical in dealing with MySpace users.  The primary issue, I feel, is the role of “virtual friends.”  Clearly friendship is multi-dimensional and, as such, it seems unlikely that your “best friend” can be one you have never met.  However, given the recent research by me and others, it is not so cut and dried.  A virtual friend is someone with whom you can be more honest, more open and more “real.”  There are no fears of those pesky visual cues signaling negative reactions. Instead, all cues are verbal and by the nature of the online world, interactions are swift and disinhibited.  Many psychologists now believe that this honesty and open self-disclosure can be a positive force in adolescent identity formation.  They also caution, however, that adolescents still need real-life friends to develop a complete interactive style that will follow them into adult relationships.

A major cry from parents concerns what they see as rampant sexuality on MySpace. Pictures that are posted may not contain nudity or suggestive semi-nudity but the latter is hard to define and so teens often post racy photos. But as one 14 year-old told me, “Geez, I’m in my bra and panties. Nobody can see anything. I don’t see why everyone’s so upset.”  This clearly highlights an issue that deserves attention.

Another consistent theme from those who decry MySpace concerns blogging.  Most MySpacers write their deepest, darkest thoughts on MySpace.  Many treat it like the “stranger on the train” phenomenon, feeling comfortable telling secrets to supposed strangers they will never see again. Clearly, putting your thoughts out for the world to read can be empowering. But the perceived anonymity can create major problems. First, many of those thoughts are spontaneous, transitory, and better left private or between good friends. Second, as many politicians are aware, anything you write on the Internet “stays on the Internet” (sorry for co-opting Las Vegas’s ad campaign slogan), possibly forever.

There are obviously many more issues that arise in cyberspace which are magnified on MySpace.  I would like to have a dialogue with those of you who either have patients dealing with these issues, are confronting them yourselves with your own families or have friends tearing their hair out over their children’s MySpacing.  Let me hear from you and next month I will discuss your views.  Thanks for listening and I look forward to what YOU have to say.

Copyright, 2006, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $35 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.