Teen – July 2009

Teens and cyber footprints: Be careful how you step.
By S.C. Torrington

Way back in the twentieth century, privacy was paramount to teenagers. But in today’s Internet world, social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook allow teens to tell all online—from mundane routines to intimate details to wildest fantasies. And, while freedom of communication has its benefits, too often that unrestrained flood of information can create detrimental or even dangerous consequences.

“Although these sites are engines of expression for teens, they are also a representation of the user to the public,” says Micah S. Mincey, coordinator of the Aberdeen Youth Program, an after-school teen program. “Be careful to post only those images and words that you want to represent you to the world.”

Too often however, such straightforward advice goes unheeded, and teens continue to post personal information, photographs, and opinions on their web pages—all of which may unwittingly invite potential Internet predators to contact them.

What’s worse, there is an increasing number of reports of teens sharing provocative information and photographs via email, phone texting, and/or IM (instant messaging) that could create harmful results as well. The practice has even coined a new term—sexting, defined as the act of electronically sending sexually explicit messages or photos, primarily between cell phones.

In fall 2008, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com commissioned a Sex and Tech survey to better understand the attitudes and behavior of teens and young adults, ages 13 to 26, who are sending or posting sexually suggestive text and images. (See sidebar for a link to the actual report.)

Researchers report that among the key findings are that, of the 653 teens surveyed (ages 13 to 19), 39 percent say they’ve sent or posted sexually suggestive messages, and 48 percent say they’ve received such messages. Of the 627 young adults ages 20 to 26 who were surveyed, the numbers are even higher, with 59 percent reporting they have sent or posted sexually suggestive messages and 64 percent saying they’ve received such messages.

Even more disturbing is that 15 percent of the teens who have sent or posted nude and/or semi-nude images of themselves say they have done so “to someone they only knew online.”

Cyberspace is Forever

What happens to all those supposedly private snapshots and personal confessions?

The Sex and Tech survey reveals that 38 percent of teen girls and 39 percent of teen boys say they’ve had someone else’s sexually suggestive message that was originally meant to be private shown to them, and 44 percent of teen girls and boys combined say it’s common for these messages to be shared with people other than the intended recipient.

Furthermore, prospective students should be aware that their online profiles are in the public domain, and any unflattering activities or comments could filter through to an admissions department.

In fact, according to a report released this past April by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, one-fourth of the colleges surveyed indicate that they have used web searches or social networking technology to locate information about prospective students.

Also, in an earlier survey, educational services company Kaplan, Inc., reported in 2008 one in 10 admissions officers of 320 colleges that were surveyed acknowledge looking at social networking sites to evaluate applicants. And, of those admissions officers who do, 38 percent report that what they’ve seen has “negatively affected” their views of the applicants. Conversely, Kaplan also reports that 25 percent of these same admissions officers say that these viewings have had a positive impact on their evaluation.

So, what’s a parent to do?

Remind your teens—and your children who are of young adult age—that there is no changing your mind once you’ve put something out in cyberspace. Potential employers, college recruiters, teachers, coaches, parents, friends, enemies, strangers, and others may be able to find someone’s past posts, sometimes even after they are deleted. BC

Helpful Websites

  • Maryland Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force (MDICAC), icac.mdsp.org. MDICAC’s mission is to safeguard children from Internet crime through a program of community education, aggressive investigation, and effective prosecution. The Task Force also provides Internet safety tips for families on its website.
  • The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, www.thenationalcampaign.org. Or go directly to the 2008 Sex and Tech survey, go to www.thenationalcampaign.org/sextech/PDF/SexTech_Summary.pdf. The survey also includes advice on talking to teens about sex and technology.
  • National Association for College Admission Counseling, www.nacacnet.org.

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