Is Talking About Risky Behavior Online Risky for Teens?

Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children’s Research Institute and Dr. Megan Moreno of the University of Wisconsin analyzed MySpace profiles of 18-year-olds. Better than half contained information about high-risk behaviors: 41 per cent mentioned substance abuse, 24 per cent sexual behavior and 14 per cent violence.

Sex, drugs and violence on the minds of teens?  That’s just so surprising.

And further, no doubt, some portion of this is bravado. After all, can you imagine rap music without these topics?

The doctors describe the “high risk” behavior not necessarily as the acts themselves, but just writing about them publicly. The researchers note this could “lead to future problems with employers or universities.” Or perhaps being approached to engage in such behaviors.

I have no issue with the researchers who are gathering data, and frankly gaining some ink that could support future funding of their good work. However, Reuters, in reporting the research, accepts that engaging in known risky teenage behavior, and posting about such behavior, are similar despite the lack of stated evidence.

And that’s the rub. The research doesn’t attempt to quantify the results of such unwise online disclosures.  We know that teens should be more prudent. That’s not news. What if they are not? That’s what parents and policy makers need to know. And research published this week from the Harvard’s Berkman Center (see below) disagrees with this assertion.

Are teens who engage in risky behavior, but don’t post about it, really any better off than those who do? And which risks are measurably increased by posting about such topics by those who do not engage in them personally? In short, researchers need to quantify the risk they are claiming, rather than asserting it as a “possibility.”

Just Tuesday the New York Times wrote of a year-long effort by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society with the headline, “Online Threats to Children Overblown”.

(The report)…looked at scientific data on online sexual predators and found that children and teenagers were unlikely to be propositioned by adults online. In the cases that do exist, the report said, teenagers are typically willing participants and are already at risk because of poor home environments, substance abuse or other problems.

That’s where skepticism from Reuters would have added value. In fact, if the risk of such online behavior is “making college admissions more difficult,” then one might ask if this is a topic for continued medical research at all.

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