May 2, 2006
MySpace. Facebook. Friendster. All of these websites are hugely popular with teens and college students.
There have been a number of questions raised about how safe they are, and how private they are.
The usual MySpace profile page includes pictures, interests, friend comments, biographies, and links to other fiends' profiles. It's a lot of information and anyone can view this page.
"It's easy, it's fun, and it doesn't require that much effort," explained Lauren Squires, a UVA graduate student and member of MySpace.com.
Squires is one of more than 60 million users on MySpace, a popular social networking site where users can post pictures, list their interests, and stay in touch with friends online. More and more people are spending more and more time on these sites.
"I never log out," laughed Squires.
Profiles range from the simple, with just a picture and an age, to others that include a whole lot more, like videos and music.
But just how private is this, often very personal, information?
Squires says she's careful about what she puts online.
"I'm aware of it and I try not to put up anything that I would be too embarrassed about," said Squires. "But I wouldn't do that anyway."
It's not just college students and young adults using these sites, though.
Lt. Tony Martin works with a Virginia organization called Operation Blue Ridge Thunder, a group working to prevent Internet crimes against children.
Even though sites like MySpace and Facebook require their users to be 18-years-old, kids are easily finding ways to get around that rule.
"The child simply lies about the birth date, and now has a posting, and then goes on to say 'well I'm not really 18, I'm only 15,"' explained Lt. Martin.
That's exactly what we found when we did a local Charlottesville search. When you type in a local zip code, you'll find a number of underage students from local high schools with profiles. Lt. Martin says that is a problem.
"The message we try to get across in Internet safety training is [to] never ever, ever give out personal information, and those types of sites actually promote that," said Lt. Martin.
While kids are slowly, but surely, learning what they should and should not post, it just might be the older users that are revealing too much. They post anything from comments about drinking habits, to pictures that are less than professional, opening the door for prospective employers looking to get an inside peak at their personal life.
One recent study reported that 75% of job recruiters use the Internet as part of applicant screening.
"Employers really do feel justified in doing this, because they feel that they want to know all sides of a candidate," said Elly Tucker, a Career Specialist at UVA's Career Services Center.
She often advises students on how to find jobs and to plan career tracks. Now when students visit the center, she has some advice.
"We warn them that anyone can access that information, so only put the things on there that you would put on a billboard," said Tucker.
For Lauren Squires, she says anything she posts is appropriate for any web surfer, and if a prospective employer doesn't like what they see...
"I probably wouldn't want them as an employer, so that's the way I would like to think about it. I don't know how it would shake out in real life," said Squires.
From the looks of things this online posting trend is not slowing down. MySpace gets more hits per day than Google, and according to one spokesperson, as many at 250,000 new people are joining each day.