Our Disposable Society and Other Musings on Internet Life

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

September-October 2006

    I am working on a book about how MySpace is shaping adolescent behavior and it has brought some interesting issues to the forefront.  In the old days – sorry for dating myself here – when a possession, such as a television set or a radio, broke, we would take it to the repair shop.  I can recall taking a burned-out tube out of my parents’ TV, going to the store, buying a replacement and then inserting it in its slot inside the television.  It was simple, fun, and I felt successful.

    Now, when something breaks we toss it in the trash and buy another. Granted, it may be less expensive to buy a new VCR than to replace a circuit board, but it makes a social statement that when something stops working, you simply replace it.  My research group and I have interviewed nearly 2,000 teens and adolescent MySpacers, and 250 parents.  Consistently, the teens told us that if someone upset them, they would simply block them from their MySpace page.  Most said it nonchalantly, as though they were discarding a radio, rather than a person.
    The “Top 8” is an important part of MySpace.  Prominently displayed on the main MySpace page are pictures of the teen’s 8 best friends, at least her best friends at the moment.  Sandy, a 14 year-old, changes them daily “depending on who I talked to that day and who I am trying to get to know.”  John, Sandy’s friend, told me that, “I have to rotate people so nobody gets their feelings hurt. Of course, my girlfriend is number 1, but the rest change all the time. Sometimes I will meet someone and put their picture on my Top 8 so that they will want to talk to me on IM.”  Poignantly, Danae, a 16 year-old, told me, “I hate Top 8. I feel so obligated sometimes. For example, my friend put me on his Top 8, so of course, I had to put him on my Top 8.  The bad thing is that there are only 8 spots you can fill. So if a friend puts me on their Top 8 and I don’t do the same, I feel bad.”

     Recently, MySpace has enlarged the Top 8, offering teens a Top 12, 16 or even a Top 20.  Danae told me that to her, “The Top 16 or 20 is stupid. You still have to leave some people off and then they are hurt. It’s my least favorite part of MySpace.”  A high school senior said. “Well, I had a Top 8 with my best friends and boyfriend, but now have a Top 12 so I could add some other close friends. I think I might even do a Top 20, but I think that is a bit crazy.  I’m thinking about going back to just 8 and figuring out who I really want there.”

    With the typical MySpacer having hundreds, if not thousands of friends, it is no big deal to drop someone off the Top 8, or off their entire friends list.  What type of message does that send?  It seems to me that it says that friendships are disposable.

    When I was writing a chapter comparing the MySpace or Net Generation to the two previous ones (Generation X and Baby Boomers), I was struck by research showing that while most Boomers have held one, or maybe two, jobs their entire lives, Gen Xers and MySpacers move freely from job to job. Unlike Boomers, the job does not represent a “career.”  It is simply a way to gain experience and then move on.  My 23 year-old nephew is on his fourth job since graduating college two years ago and is looking around for something more challenging.

    I worry about this apparent lack of stick-to-it-iveness.  I see it all around me in my younger students.  If a class is too hard, drop it. If a boyfriend or husband does something you don’t like, move out.  Are we moving to a place where we are more willing to dispose of jobs, possessions and relationships rather than put in the effort to make them work?  E-mail me with your opinions.

Further Musings

     The House of Representatives recently passed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) by an overwhelming 410 to 15 vote.  This act requires federally-funded institutions (e.g., schools and libraries) to use computer filters to prevent children from accessing sites like MySpace where they might experience “unlawful sexual advances.”  The act also covers any site which allows people to chat with other users or post personal information potentially including blogging sites and even popular sites like Amazon.com.  By the time you are reading this the Senate will have also voted in favor and the President will have signed it into law.

     DOPA, which is an apt acronym for this ridiculous act, will do nothing to stop sexual predators from using MySpace.  First, nearly all children access MySpace from home (and most from their bedrooms). Second, despite scare tactics from the media including Dateline’s program which entraps predators, social networking sites are not teeming with perverts.  My latest research shows that a scant few teens are even approached by someone for sex and nearly all of them just block the person from their MySpace site.  Out of nearly 2,000 MySpacers, only a handful was even mildly upset by “perverts.”

     The problem is simply a lack of parental attention.  My latest study found that: (1) only one-third of parents have seen their teen’s MySpace page, (2) 40%  have never seen their MySpace photographs, (3) nearly half the parents claimed to have limits on their children’s MySpace use, but only 25% of teens said those limits were upheld, (4) 43% of parents were not sure about how many days per week their child is on MySpace and 36% are not sure about how many hours they spend there, and (5) half the parents admit that their child uses the Internet from their bedroom rather than a location where the parent can supervise.  Why blame the school or the library when parents are clueless about their children’s online activity?  Perhaps the House and Senate would be smarter to make parenting classes available to parents of MySpacers.  That makes more sense to me.

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.