What Are Teens Hiding on MySpace

May 18, 2006 — -- MySpace.com exemplifies one of the hottest Internet trends -- an online community where people post profiles in search of whatever and whoever. Think of it as a diary, but a diary you want others to read.

The social networking site allows people to design their own Web pages to reflect their personalities -- listing their likes, dislikes and hobbies.

The goal is to link up with others, forming groups with similar interests. It's as wholesome as cheerleading and baseball, or as troubling as guns, sex and drugs.

Often teens looking for new friends post profiles, not realizing that their personal information can become fair game for Internet predators. Or in Sarah's case, a disillusioned teen can hook up with a group of friends who can lead her down a very dangerous path.

"It was easier to find people who did drugs than just like walking down the street," Sarah told "Primetime." "Every weekend I would find more people, and it would get deeper and deeper."

A middle school student in the Midwest, 12-year-old Sarah was desperate to belong, trying to cope with the typical insecurities and growing pains that come with being a preteen.

"It hurt to have people hate me, to know that I didn't have any friends," she said. "On the bus one day this kid was sitting in the back all stoned, and he did not care what was going on. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to not care."

Finding Outsiders Online

She turned to MySpace, where she found plenty of outsiders like herself. Sarah said she had started experimenting with drugs before joining MySpace but getting online created a whole new world of possibilities.

A simple search by ABC News on MySpace came up with tens of thousands of people talking about marijuana. Many more were in groups where sex was the topic, and nearly 55,000 people belonged to an online group called Drunks United.

Membership in MySpace is skyrocketing, according to the company, which claims that after 2½ years, it has more than 77 million users. MySpace has become the hot spot for music lovers and hobbyists, as well as for people looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. And more kids are signing up.

Like many parents, Sarah's mother, Janeel, was completely in the dark about what really went on online. Sarah told her mom MySpace was a place to chat with friends, and Janeel thought that seemed harmless.

"MySpace doesn't sound too threatening," Janeel said. "She said I can do and find anything on MySpace. ... And she did."

It's tough enough for parents to deal with their kids' friends they can see, but how do you deal with friends who exist only on the Internet?

"Well, it's very scary," Janeel said. "I had instincts something was wrong."

And she was right.

Thanks to her web of online friends, Sarah had a drug dealer basically in there with her -- and the 12-year-old was also lying about her age and meeting older men.

Sarah was desperate for intimacy, but the men she met were often looking for sex. She remembers one party where drugs and an older date got the better of her.

"And then I met another guy who I went to a party with, and I got really messed up ... and, um, I ended up like doing stuff with him," she said.

Even though she was in her room on her computer, Sarah was getting further and further away from her family. And sometimes she literally disappeared.

Sarah left home to connect with people she met on MySpace more than once. At one point Janeel was on the local news, begging for help in finding her daughter. "I thought someone had abducted her," she said.

Site Getting a Bad Rap?

Hemanshu Nigam was recently appointed the head of security at MySpace, at a time when the news has showcased stories about kids getting into serious trouble on the site.

In Rhode Island, teens were arrested on pornography charges after posting sexually explicit acts on their home pages; in Kansas, five high school students were arrested after they posted their alleged plans to commit mass murder in a Columbine style rampage. And there have been a number of stories about predators trolling the site for victims

Nigam, a former federal prosecutor and online child safety head for Microsoft, says an online community poses the same risks as any community.

"Teens will do what they do," Nigam said. "What we are doing is looking at sites that go up, and identifying them. When somebody tells us about a site, we very quickly determine if our members rules are in violation or not, and then we take it down. And if there is any type of criminal acitivity, we report it to law enforcement."

But the question is: What is considered criminal activity? In a search of the site, "Primetime" found hundreds of pictures of kids taking drugs -- faces and all.

Some parents are taking matters into their own hands.

Anne Boydston, a mother from Ojai, Calif., began getting uneasy about her daughter's MySpace use because she acted so secretive about it, but she hesitated to take action.

"Because I know that my mother would never open my diary that I kept in high school," she said.

She tried to limit her daughter's time on MySpace, but then Boydston found out her 12-year-old was lying about her age on the site. In her profile, she was claiming to be 15. That's when she took her daughter off the site completely.

Catherine Salliant, also from Ojai, went online to read her 12-year-old daughter's MySpace page.

"There is this one section of MySpace called bulletins, where she receives notes from anyone and those were just filled with racy descriptions of sex and sex acts and swear words and images that I thought my daughter was too young to be dealing with," Salliant said.

Her immediate reaction was to ban her daughter from MySpace, but then she had a change of heart.

"I talked to my family and friends and decided to let her on but with some very strict guidelines," she said.

Salliant drew up a contract and made her daughter sign it. One of the stipulations has mom keeping the password, which her daughter needs before she can log on.

But then something unexpected happened -- Salliant got her own MySpace account, and she calls the site "kind of seductive."

"I go on it for about a half hour a day, and I e-mail people or I send pictures to my sister," said Salliant, who even found an old friend she hadn't seen in 25 years on MySpace.

Salliant's daughter has mixed feeling about having her mom on MySpace. "It kind of felt weird that she had a MySpace and then it led to all my aunts and uncles having MySpace and my grandma has a MySpace. It's kinda weird," she said.

Dana Boyd, a cultural anthropologist studying MySpace, thinks the site is getting a bad rap.

"Today's teens are not really allowed to hang outside the home with their friends. Parents are afraid they will be harmed," Boyd said.

She says the pictures of teens acting sexy or showing themselves doing drugs or drinking is something that teens have always done: acting older than they are. But with the Internet, they're just getting a much larger audience.

While harmless for many teens, the easy access of MySpace fed Sarah's destructive behavior. Eventually, she was sent away to an intensive drug rehabilitation facility.

Her mother has not seen her nor spoken to her in five months, and Sarah still has months of treatment ahead.

"I have a picture of her when she is just a few minutes old and and I had dreams in the world for her," Janeel said. "And no expectations that she would ever get involved with anything that would hurt her."