Doc Reaches Out to Misbehaving Teens on MySpace

Many teens and college students have no problem chronicling their sexual and drug exploits on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook -- until, of course, it costs them a job opportunity.

But what if their first personal warning didn't come from a potential employer, but from a helpful doctor?

That was the question pediatrician Dr. Megan Moreno sought to answer when she e-mailed 95 inner-city 18- to 20-year-olds to warn them about the potential problems their MySpace profiles might cause.

"A lot of them, I don't think they realized that anyone beyond their friends would even be interested in this information," said Moreno, who at the time of this research was a fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Researchers studied both the frequency of sexual and drug references in young people's MySpace profiles and what happened when Moreno warned them that they should not post such sensitive information online.

What they found, according to Moreno, was that reaching out to teens individually may help them change their behavior online and, she hopes, ultimately help improve their behavior and care for their health in real life.

Researchers added that they hoped their study would suggest to parents that they should be more aware of what kids disclose online.

"We have far too many parents who are not aware at all of what their children's experience online is," said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital and one of the study's authors.

"It's really important that parents get out ahead of their child's Internet use," he said.

Cutting Out the Sex Talk

MySpace was chosen, rather than another social networking site, because of the ability to search through a large number of profiles and the fact that the profiles are available to the general public. The researchers sought to use only public information in the course of the study.

The findings, Moreno said, are promising but not overwhelming. Some people made their profiles private, while others simply removed the sexual or drug-related content.

"It's suggestive that it had a positive impact, but it's not ... that everybody who got our e-mail changed their profile."

The only highly significant impact of the intervention, the authors note, was in sexual content, where youths who received a warning had four times better odds of removing the sexual content from their profile.

Moreno says she feels the fact that her e-mail focused more on the risks of sexually transmitted diseases than on the dangers of drugs may have influenced many more of the young people to remove sexual material than drug material.

"It's a bit of an in-your-face reminder about the consequences of sexual activity. I think that definitely could have impacted our results," Moreno said.

The e-mails, in which Moreno introduced herself and explained that the behaviors mentioned in the profiles could cause problems, received few responses and those were mixed.

Moreno said that a handful thanked her for the information, while another handful told her to mind her own business.

While not overwhelming, the study presents a promising avenue into new research on how social networking sites can be used, Moreno said.

She is also not discouraged by the relatively low response.

"We wanted, for this study, to target a population, which frankly we thought would be least interested in our message," Moreno said.

She said they chose inner-city youths in one of the five most impoverished areas in America, because they felt if their program succeeded there, it could succeed elsewhere.

But getting a better response may not mean simply finding a different audience.

"I think when you talk to kids about their risky behavior, you have to be sensitive to how you do it," Emory University psychologist Nadine Kaslow said.

She said that future research would need to experiment with different tones and even different authors, as she said youths may not respond to a doctor, whom they see as being like a parental authority figure.

An e-mail from a peer, Kaslow said, might lead to a stronger response.

A New Platform for Intervention?

For her part, Moreno said future studies would probably look at how the e-mail warning was presented, and whether the gender would affect results, as the study showed more females than males responding to her message.

But while Kaslow said the intervention would need more tweaking for the future, it may help youths online.

"That is very creative," she said of the interventions. "I definitely think social networking is a great tool for at-risk adolescents."

Moreno said she hoped future research would show how effective online interventions could be in changing not just online, but real behavior as well.

"I think the overall goal is to see if these Web sites can be used to improve adolescent health care," she said.

But quantifying real-world behavior changes will prove difficult.

Moreno noted that even the behaviors are questionable and may be just boasting rather than indicators of drug and sexual problems.

Actually tying real-world behavior to online behavior would be what Moreno called "the holy grail" in this area of research.

"I think that our eventual goal is to see whether online interaction can facilitate real health behavior change," Moreno said.

But while there may be a way to change online behavior in teens, it remains unclear how that would translate to real life.

And at-risk youths may need to be reached out to in a stronger manner.

I just don't know whether a single intervention could have that much impact," said Kaslow.

ABC News' Lauren Cox contributed to this report.