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Probe Ministries > Related Articles > Related Articles on Media


MySpace: Parents and Kids Wisely Navigating Online Social Networking
Byron Barlowe

Written by Byron Barlowe

Very Big and Very Hip

MySpace.com: It's big, it's growing, it's controversial for good reasons, and it's probably touched your family—and you may not even know it. In this section, we answer the questions, "What is it and why do you as a parent need to learn more about protecting your kids without cutting them off?"

Is MySpace a harmless teen hangout or a treacherous trap? Should parents forbid your kids from using MySpace or similar social networking Web sites? Kids, do your parents, like, even have a clue? And could Christians legitimately use MySpace as a mission field?

Controversy about MySpace still abounds, even in the fast-moving online world.

Imagine this: Your straight-A, straight-laced teenaged daughter Lori met Aaron online when he visited her MySpace profile, a Web page about her. Now she wants to go to the concert with Aaron and his online buddy, "PartyCrasher." "But mom, we've been ‘friends' for weeks!" she whines. Mom and Dad, what do you do now?

This may not happen to your family, but something similar happened to a Michigan family whose previously trouble-free sixteen-year-old daughter sneaked a flight to the Middle East to rendezvous with a MySpace "friend"!{1}

So, what is MySpace? According to one top ranking site, in August 2007 it became the sixth-most-visited Web site on the Internet,{2} with over 100 million accounts.

A "perfect storm": millions of people—many of them in their teens and twenties—are connecting with friends, meeting new ones, producing Web pages and video and music, chatting, inviting back and forth to events—even doing business and art—all within virtual communities.

Think of it as a microcosm of the World Wide Web, only much more easily connected and organized, even by kids. If the Internet was the Wild West, social networking sites—sites like MySpace—are becoming its boomtowns.

Wired magazine explains, "MySpace.Com, the Internet's most popular social networking site…has helped redefine the way a generation communicates."{3}

One digital culture watcher wrote, "Community-based websites are the fastest growing sites on the Internet. The teen social ecosystem MySpace" is the biggest.{4}

"According to some," writes Connie Neal, author of MySpace for Moms & Dads, "MySpace marks a societal revolution as monumental as the industrial revolution."{5}

MySpace owner Rupert Murdoch said, "The average person who is computer proficient is self-empowered in a way they never have [been] before."{6}

It's this newfound "empowerment" that rightly concerns parents.

Let's keep perspective. It's only natural that real life is replicated online. A Roper study found that "online communities represent a real and growing phenomenon, but one that is dwarfed by interest in real-world social networks . . . [like] extended family (94% interest), neighborhood or town (80%), religious or spiritual organization (77%), hobby/interest (69%)" and so forth.

The directors of BlogSafety.com have written a handy book entitled MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking. ("Blog" is short for Weblog, an online diary or commentary page.) They write regarding the rapidly evolving topic of teens redefining blogging into more of a social interaction: "As we adults struggle to find the language that describes this phenomenon, teens are speeding ahead, making it up as they go. . . . To them, these sites are just another tool for socializing."{7} Online and offline distinctions blur into oblivion.

What does this mean for Christian youth and parents?

Dangers and Solutions

MySpace and similar social networking sites can be intimidating, even dangerous places. Threats like malicious software, cyberbullying, and sexual predators render it risky for the unprepared and unsupervised. MySpace is being called to account and is responding, but it's primarily up to parents to protect their children.

One thoughtful parent and Christian school educator responded to the topic as I first did: "Isn't MySpace a waste of time or worse, a place where kids think they're experiencing real relationships but are only getting a risky situation?" His observation was that the kind of kids who were drawn to MySpace already had deep needs that weren't being fulfilled, primarily by parents.

As a parent of three pre-teens, I shared his skepticism. Yet, there's a bigger picture, I found. There's hope, too. Nonetheless, it can be scary, especially in light of greater autonomy for kids who naturally lack discretion.

Let's pretend you find your thirteen-year-old son pacing after something hits the wall with a crash. He blurts out, "They put up a site about me with nasty pictures and said I'm fat! Now everybody is messaging about it. I'm not going to school." He's been cyberslammed and feels his young world crashing in.

The sense of public humiliation caused by cyberbullying is coupled with the danger that online threats can spill into real life. MySpace and similar sites can be intimidating, even dangerous places. As a parent, you may choose to forbid or restrict use of MySpace in your home. But I suggest you choose in an informed, careful way.

Sexual dangers are the best known. Chatrooms and posted messages easily enable such temptations and threats. One recent trip to MySpace rendered solicitations to chat online with a sultry woman seeking American servicemen and a gang-type fellow with the screen name "King Pimpin'."

In 2002, fifteen-year-old Katie Canton met John in a live online chat room. Since he lived far away, Katie felt free to send photos and flirt. Soon John was sending Katie gifts and e-mailing.

This story ended well: Katie testified at John's trial where he got twenty years in prison. But it had taken Katie participating in a role-playing video game to realize that her behavior and that of her would-be abuser was becoming a classic case of online predation.{8} This is why parental education and supervision are crucial.

Again, some perspective is in order. It's tempting to view sites like MySpace.com as a monolithic online ghetto. A more accurate word picture may be a high school campus. Enter on one side, see the "dopeheads"; enter another, see the "jocks" and cheerleaders. You can't paint with too broad a brush in assessing it accurately. And students can privately stay in the "nice part of town."

Concern is warranted, of course. The required minimum age for MySpace is fourteen. However, age verification is still technically impossible, largely due to lack of a public track record for minors—ironic, as many of them create public records openly on such sites.

Parents have sued on behalf of their abused daughters, and thirty-four state attorneys general are now demanding more age-verification controls.{9} Meanwhile, MySpace has reportedly discovered thousands of members who are convicted sex offenders. "The attorneys general of Georgia, Idaho, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and New Hampshire joined Connecticut in signing a letter to the company asking it to turn over information."{10}

MySpace has responded. The company deleted two hundred thousand "objectionable" accounts.{11} (A similar move by networking site Friendster caused a mass exodus, a sad commentary on many of its users.) MySpace also began developing parental tracking software, seen by many as just a start.

After hiring a former prosecutor with experience working on sex crimes against children as chief security officer, in January, 2007, MySpace donated a breakthrough national database to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). It features the first-ever method to match faces and body features like tattoos to often-elusive sex offenders. Providing "a way to filter convicted offenders from younger MySpace members, the database combines the records of individual state registries, plus allows searches based on images, which the NCMEC said is important."{12}

A new senate bill would require—for the first time ever—sex offenders to register their email addresses. Donna Rice Hughes, president of the watchdog/activist group Enough Is Enough, says, "While there is no ‘silver bullet' for protecting children from Internet dangers, this legislation will help to provide another protective barrier for millions of children. . . . Parents must remain proactive and educated about the safety rules and software tools available."{13}

Child safety experts agree: parental guidance should be the first and strongest line of defense. Technology continues to outrun ethical reflection in a culture marked by the philosophy, "If it can be done, go for it!" Pragmatism, the myth of progress as always good, lack of a biblical understanding of sin's pervasiveness and seriousness and sheer greed, drive many of the developments like the MySpace revolution.

But so do innately human needs and God-given desires to connect in a disjointed, wired world. Moral panic regarding teens and technology are nothing new. Doomsday prophecies—partially deserved—ensued with the advent motion pictures, television, and the Internet itself, as Internet researcher Danah Boyd points out.{14} Wise adaptation is always essential to being "in the world but not of it."{15}

Hanging Out and Friending

Kids hang out on MySpace because virtually everyone they know does, even if they would prefer not to. Another big draw: shared interests. But teens need to appreciate the distinction between acquaintances and true friends, as well as appropriate vs. illegitimate public intimacy while being truly "real."

What can make young men cry? Take away their online "space."

At a conference panel discussion on social networking, four ministry leaders shared nearly identical experiences. Their teens had naturally migrated to MySpace with their peers and created profiles there, unknown to these conservative Christian dads. After perusing the site, three of the four outright forbade use of MySpace. One by one, they told tales of begging and weeping. One boy sobbed, "Dad, it's the only time I've ever felt cool."

This is tricky. Parents' gut reaction may be to minimize or dismiss such a notion. Yet, socialization at this age happens naturally, inevitably, even critically. But online? Here?

But part of the vital process of adolescent socializing is decoding cues about where you fit into the youth culture and who you are perceived to be. If kids are deeply grounded in the love of their God and family, it's just another "place." It's when this grounding is missing that MySpace can easily become a platform to present a false self.

Danah Boyd talks about the psychology of publicly viewable social networking: it's performed. "Showing face" becomes key, being "real" has its limits while "friending" online. Note the use of "friend" as a verb there.{16}

Author Connie Neal lists ways MySpace meets the needs of teens in uncanny ways, needs to:

• Communicate with peers
• Try on different styles
• See what others are like
• Explore their generation's music, art, photography
• Hear, view, read stories through media
• Flirt
• Make friends
• Feel included in a group{17}

For a time, MySpace also seemed unavoidable (it may be "like, so last year" at this point; Facebook is reportedly the social site of choice today among youth). Danah Boyd says, "For most teens, it is simply a part of everyday life—they are [at MySpace] because their friends are there and they are there to hang out with those friends. Of course, its ubiquitousness does not mean that everyone thinks that it's cool. Many teens complain that the site is lame, noting that they have better things to do. Yet, even those teens have an account which they check regularly because it's the only way to keep up with the Joneses."{18}

Social networking relies on clicking to "make" or invite "friends." In contrast, an ancient Hebrew proverb states, "A man of too many friends comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother."{19}

This leads to a deeper question: "What does the term ‘friend' really mean?" Certainly more than a popularity contest, which many accuse MySpace of becoming. Stephanie Bennett, writing for Breakpoint, warns, "In many ways these technologies reduce relationship to a commodity—something one possesses rather than a jointly developed friendship."

Bennett continues:

Just as the practice of [slow-paced] courtship . . . gave way to dating and the now common practice of objectifying "the other" [or "hooking up" and casual sex], the rules of relationship are . . . being rewritten, and . . . are being shaped by a distinctly media-centered worldview rather than a Christian one.{20}

Author C. S. Lewis wrote:

Friendship arises out of mere companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one."{21}

Perhaps herein lies the greatest appeal of MySpace—shared interests. This is not lost on teenagers.

In balance, as one participant in a CNN.com forum wrote, "True friends . . . need to learn when to stop blogging and go across campus to help a friend."{22}

C. S. Lewis also wrote, "Eros will have naked bodies; friendship naked personalities."{23} The scantily clad girls parading on certain pages at MySpace reflect our culture. Sex is confused with intimacy nowadays; psychological nudity on the Internet is not so different.

Billed as a place to make friends and connect in community, MySpace, Facebook, Xanga and the like may be having the opposite effect, according to one study at San Diego State. It uncovered "an attitude of ‘It's all about me'" prevailing among college students, the Chicago Tribune reported, and "blogging and social networking are ‘playing a big role' in this."{24}

Nonsense, says tech educator Andy Carvin. Social networking largely entails "communities where people reinforce interpersonal relationships through sharing and creating content. . . . [They] want to be a part of something bigger than themselves."{25}

Social sites should reflect and enhance relationships, not define them. Challenge the presumption of instant-friendship-by-mouseclick with your kids as necessary. Guard against not only physical but "psychological nudity."

This presents one more important conversational topic for parents training their kids in a biblical worldview marked by serving others, not by parading themselves or sending false signals.

Parents and Teens Cooperating

Picture yourself or your child in a situation like this: "We're sorry, Caitlyn, but we just cannot hire you. Your online history isn't in keeping with our company's standards." A growing host of those among the Internet generation with online regrets have walled off their online socializing from prying parents and ended up miring their futures in controversy.

Another problem with MySpace and social sites is what Boyd calls persistence in digital publics. Unable to envision the future, kids don't grasp the lasting ramifications of their youthful foolishness, often captured publicly and permanently in cyberspace. "Without impetus," Boyd says, "teens rarely choose to go private on MySpace and certainly not for fear of predators or future employers. They want to be visible to other teens, not just the people they've "friended." They would just prefer [that] adults go away. All adults. Parents, teachers, creepy men."{26} Natural teenage feelings indeed.

Boyd continues:

While the potential predator or future employer doesn't concern most teens, parents and teachers do. Reacting to increasing adult surveillance, many teens are turning their profiles private or creating separate accounts under fake names. In response, many parents are demanding complete control over teens' digital behaviors. This dynamic often destroys the most important value in the child/parent relationship: trust.{27}

While hers may sound like a throwback to the 1960s "Question authority!" mantra, Boyd raises a good point. She points out that nowadays adults control youth environments as never before due to fear of abduction and safety issues. "Teens have increasingly less access to public space. Classic 1950s hang outs like the roller rink and burger joint are disappearing while malls and 7-11s are banning teens unaccompanied by parents."{28} Balancing the imperative to protect against the need to let go is tough.

At the same time, parents, teachers, and youth leaders need to inculcate and model a biblical respect for God-given authority. When kids disrespect this, their Internet privileges should be at stake. Some practical safety tips for parents:

• Make sure your kids profile themselves online privately, only to well-chosen friends.

• Ask your kids to invite you online as a "friend"—but don't embarrass them!

• Openly discuss your concerns about social networking with your child.

• Tour their online space and those of their friends.

• Be alert to kids who are very secretive about their Internet use.

• Use the computer in a common area of the house.

• Monitor mobile online use and set up accountability with meaningful consequences. Yet, too many rules could exasperate older kids.{29}

Remember the story of the crying kids who had MySpace privileges revoked? One dad took a different approach. He entered into his daughter's online world and began exploring how to safely navigate and do ministry outreach together. Connie Neal describes MySpace for Moms and Dads how she participates with her daughter's willing friends as spiritual and relational advisor.{30}

The eventual goal of child-rearing is increasing autonomy and decreasing dependency. Social networking allows kids some autonomy, but they need to be careful in such a public arena. We as parents do well to act knowledgeably, not react out of sheer emotion.

Redeeming MySpace

MySpace has effectively tapped into youth culture and human nature. Teens are riding a culture-wide wave of self-expression.

But adult audiences there—and especially at other networking sites—are even bigger. Companies are now glomming onto the model for business purposes. AnimalAttraction.com, a social networking site for people who love pets, started as a dating service. Now, you can create a tailor-made social network through services like Ning.

Up to ten thousand Virginia Tech students conversed on social sites the day thirty-two were murdered in a shooting rampage.{31} Presidential candidates are leveraging networking sites today.

Why is this idea so powerful? Could it be that self-expression is a sign of imago dei, the image of God imprinted into the soul of everyone? God spoke the world into existence, and we, his highest creatures, create ideas in much the same way. We seem to have an insatiable need to be heard, especially as we emerge into young manhood or womanhood.

What if we're really after much more—eternally satisfying relating that nothing on earth can compare to? For many folks, online "friends" or a bigger-than-life Web identity are just new ways to reach out for what's unreachable in this life. As C. S. Lewis wrote, "If we discover a desire within us that nothing in this world can satisfy . . . we should begin to wonder if perhaps we were created for another world."{32}

MySpace can be surprisingly redemptive. It served as a clearinghouse of mourning for Anna, murdered in cold blood while working at a McDonald's. A youth-led movement to help Ugandan orphans is building to huge proportions.

The head of Internet outreach for one of the world's largest ministries encourages viewing MySpace as a mission field. He tells kids, "It's where your friends and their friends are already. Jesus called us to be smart, not safe." As Paul wrote to the Roman church, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."{33}

If you decide that MySpace is not for your family, there are Christian alternatives created for fellowship, evangelism, and discipleship; Meetfish.com and MyPraize.com are two.

Rather than "circle the countercultural wagons," why not explore the frontier of online social networking with your child? In a few years, the choice will be theirs, and they will likely default to socializing online as well as offline. They need to learn how to:

Be discerning online, asking things like, "Do I know and trust this person? Will this help me or hurt me?"

Reflect Christ online: "How am I coming across? Does it honor my family and God? Am I teasing with moral compromise?"

• Ask themselves "Who seems lost, alone, afraid? Who needs the gospel?" That is, see their online life as a calling of Christ.

Dr. Kathy Koch of Celebrate Kids offers a real-life prescription for healthy self-esteem: "Parents and teachers who pay attention to children and teens for who they are and not just what they do, believe in kids' present value and not just their future potential, and encourage kids by celebrating them on more than their birthdays."{34}

Do this while teaching discernment and a thoroughly biblical worldview, and social networking may not be a problem. It could be a blessing in disguise.

Notes

1. "'MySpace' teen back from Middle East," USA Today, www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-06-09-jordan-MySpace_x.htm (accessed August 14, 2007).
2. Alexa Top 500, www.alexa.com/site/ds/top_sites?ts_mode=global&lang=none# (accessed August 14, 07).
3. "Marines Use MySpace to Recruit," Wired, www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2006/07/71448, July 24, 2006 (accessed August 14, 2007) (italics added).
4. Ellyssa Kroski, "Community 2.0," blog post on Web log Infotangle, infotangle.blogsome.com/2006/04/07/community-20/, posted April 7, 2006 (accessed August 14, 2007).
5. Connie Neal, "A Mom's Guide to MySpace: What you need to know about this popular website," Today's Christian Woman online edition, January/February 2007, Vol. 29, No. 1, Page 30 (print edition), www.christianitytoday.com/tcw/2007/janfeb/5.30.html (accessed August 14, 2007).
6. Ibid.
7. Larry Magid and Anne Collier, MySpace Unraveled: A Parent's Guide to Teen Social Networking, www.myspaceunraveled.com.
8. Ibid.
9. Lisa Lerer, "Why MySpace Doesn't Card," Forbes online, January 25, 2007, tinyurl.com/2jhwfy (accessed August 19, 2007).
10. Scott Malone, "Thousands of sex offenders discovered on MySpace," May 14, 2007, tinyurl.com/35x2zq (accessed August 14, 2007).
11. Joshua Chaffin and Aline van Duyn, "MySpace acts to calm teen safety fears," Financial Times, March 30 2006, www.ft.com/cms/s/3f8a53d4-c01c-11da-939f-0000779e2340.html (accessed August 14, 2007).
12. Ed Sutherland, "MySpace Makes Offer on Offender Database," January 29, 2007, www.internetnews.com/security/article.php/3656676 (accessed August 14, 2007).
13. Donna Rice Hughes, "Enough Is Enough Endorses The 'Kids Act Of 2007'," Enough is Enough, March 16, 2007, www.enough.org/inside.php?id=PM5ECT8A (accessed August 14, 2007).
14. Danah Boyd, "Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace," American Association for the Advancement of Science, St. Louis, MO. February, 2006, www.danah.org/papers/AAAS2006.html (accessed August 14, 2007).
15. John 17:14-15 (NIV).
16. Boyd, "Identity Production in a Networked Culture."
17. Connie Neal, MySpace for Moms and Dads: A Guide to Understanding the Risks and the Rewards, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 98-99.
18. Boyd, "Identity Production in a Networked Culture."
19. Proverbs 18:24 (NIV).
20. Stephanie Bennett, "MySpace—The Final Frontier?" January 12, 2007, radio commentary, Breakpoint, breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=5969 (accessed August 15, 2007).
20. Stephanie Bennett, "MySpace—The Final Frontier?" January 12, 2007, radio commentary, Breakpoint, breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=5969 (accessed August 15, 2007).
21. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Orlando, FL: Harvest Books: Harcourt, Inc., original copyright 1960), 65.
22. Anonymous forum participant, CNN.com (page no longer available), as quoted in a conversation on eMinistryNotes on "Can Internet communication sustain us?" October 9, 2006, www.eministrynotes.com/2006/10/09/new-trend-conversations-offline (accessed August 15, 2007).
23. Lewis, 71.
24. "Narcissism due to social networking?" NetFamilyNews, March 9, 2007, www.netfamilynews.org/nl070309.html#6 (accessed August 15, 2007).
25. NetFamilyNews, "Narcissism due to social networking?"
26. Boyd, "Identity Production in a Networked Culture."
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid.
29. Based on Neal, MySpace for Moms and Dads.
30. Ibid.
31. ABC Nightline, April 16, 2007. "At one point today, up to 10,000 Virginia Tech students were using social Web sites like Facebook & MySpace to communicate about the tragic events that unfolded on their campus."
32. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
33. Romans 12:21 (ESV).
34. Dr. Kathy Koch, Celebrate Kids, celebratekids.com.

© 2007 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Byron BarloweByron Barlowe is a research associate and Web coordinator with Probe Ministries. He earned a B.S. in Communications at Appalachian State University in gorgeous Boone, N.C. Byron served 20 years with Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC), eight years as editor and Webmaster of a major scholarly publishing site, Leadership University (LeaderU.com). In that role, he oversaw several sub-sites, including the Online Faculty Offices of Drs. William Lane Craig and William Dembski. His wife, Dianne, served 25 years with CCC and now homeschools their teenage triplets.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

Further information about Probe's materials and ministry may be obtained by contacting us at:

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