X-Posed on MySpace:
A Content Analysis of “MySpace” Social Networking Sites
Tamyra A. Pierce
California State University, Fresno
Online Publication Date: February 10, 2007
Journal of Media Psychology, Volume 12, No. 1, Winter 2007
This study examined the content of social networking sites and specifically, MySpace sites. Seven hundred MySpace sites were analyzed. The following content from the opening page of MySpace sites were coded: 1) demographic information; 2) personal information; 3) visual sexual material; 4) profanity and sexual profanity; and 5) the number of friends added by the user. The results revealed that users included a large variety of personal information, sexual content and profanity/sexual profanity on their social networking sites. Females tended to post more personal information and sexual pictures (risqué and female nudity) on their sites than did males. In addition, females were also found to include pictures of sexual physical contact (homosexual) on their social networking sites more than did males. Results showed that younger adolescents tended to post more personal contact information (address and phone number) about themselves than did older adolescents. However, no conclusive results were found between younger or older adolescents and posting sexual content. But those who did not include their age were found to post more sexual content. Finally, results showed that females tended to post more links to sexual communities on their sites than did males. However, there was no significant difference in the amount of sexual profanity used on males’ and females’ sites.
In 2006, a 17-year old teen in Grand Rapids, Michigan was arrested for taking pictures of two teens having sexual intercourse and then linking the pictures from his social networking site (Gallup, 2006). This type of scenario seems to be all too common today; however, it should come as no surprise that teens may feel this is acceptable behavior given the environment in which they live. Teens are inundated with sex in all forms of media—from print and television to the songs they listen to and watch on MTV. Television has been widely documented as a major source of sexual content (Huston, Wartella, & Donnerstein, 1998), but it is not the only source from which teens learn. Specifically, soap operas contain more than 10 instances of sexuality per hour (Greenberg & Busselle, 1996), 82% of primetime television programs contain some level of sexual content (Cope-Farrar & Kunkel, 2002), almost one-third of magazines sampled contain sexual topics (Walsh-Childers, Gotthoffer, & Lepre, 2002), and 85% of songs that are popular among youth contain references to sexuality (Arnett, 2002; Strouse, Buerkel-Rothfuss, & Long, 1995). But what about the Internet?
According to Thornburgh and Lin (2002), 1.5% of over 2 billion websites contain sexually explicit material and these sites tend to have high volumes of hits (i.e., visitors to the sites). Although the Internet may have many positive attributes and provides young people with a wealth of learning resources (Wartella, Lee, & Caplovitz, 2002), sites that contain sexually explicit material have potentially negative implications (Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Wolak, 2000). For instance, viewing sexually explicit content online has been linked to an increase in the likelihood of sexual behaviors and attitudes (Fisher & Barak, 2001). More recently, Ven-hwei and Wei (2005) found a correlation between adolescents’ exposure to sexually explicit material online and their acceptance of sexual permissiveness and their willingness to engage in sexually permissive activities.
Social networking sites, such as MySpace, Xanga and Friendster, have become an overnight phenomenon and are attracting young people by the millions (Bausch & Han, 2006). But recent research suggests that many teens are posting material that may elicit negative consequences. For instance, Pierce (2006) found that 38% of users of MySpace reported they frequently post personal information and 30% of the teens said they post sexual content on their sites.
Although past research has examined sexual content in various media, to date, there is a scarcity of research that has looked at the sexual content on social networking sites. Given that recent research has revealed that teens report they post sexual content on their sites, the current study will further examine this issue by examining the actual content on MySpace sites. This analysis will determine what content is posted on users’ sites and if there are any differences in content between males and females.
MySpace, a social networking site, was originally created by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson merely to promote their band, the Raveonettes (Foo, 2006). MySpace was launched in 2003 as a place for visitors to explore new independent artists, but it quickly exploded into far more than a place to hear about new music. In 2005, with an estimated 50 million users, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which also owns and operates FoxNews.com, purchased MySpace and its parent company for $580 million (Foo, 2006). To date, MySpace has more than 60 million users, of which an estimated 10 million are under the age of 17 (Bausch & Han, 2006). Users of MySpace are able to create profiles about themselves, include photographs, list personal interests and seek out others within the site who may share their same interests (Hopkins, 2003).
Although the original target audience was for those over 20 and interested in music, MySpace, as well as other social networking sites, is now attracting an overwhelming following among adolescents (Odum, 2006). Nielsen//Netratings rated Myspace as the top social networking site. In addition to being the number one social networking site, MySpace also has the highest retention rate with 67% of its visitors returning (Odum, 2006).
Social Networking Sites and Adolescents
Prior to social networking sites, such as MySpace, relatively few adolescents had the knowledge or capability to create their own homepages in which they could post pictures, personal information or detailed writings (Brown, Steele, and Walsh-Childers, 2002). However, with the introduction of social networking sites, the ability to create one’s own personal webpage is now relatively easy and requires little knowledge of web navigation, design skills nor familiarity with any web designing software.
Social networking sites are web diaries that allow adolescents and users of all ages to post pictures and information that allow users to “display the selves they are, the selves they wish to become, and the selves they wish others to see” (Stern, 2002, p. 266). This is a type of self expression that is an important part of development for adolescents and particularly during mid-adolescence (ages 13-17) where there is increasing independence and identity formation (Haffner, 1995). Teens in this stage of their lives may “actively and consciously begin to engage in identity construction” (Stern, 2002, p. 266) and sexuality is often at the center of this identity formation for some adolescents (Steinberg, 1993).
Adolescents and Sexually Explicit Material on the Internet
In 2005, over 21 million adolescents had access to and used the Internet on a regular basis (Lenhart, 2005). Based on a study funded by the National Science Foundation, children as early as the age of 3 are using the computer on their own. By the time children reach their teens, their Internet use focuses on identity, social issues and, as mentioned previously, sexuality (NSF, 2005). Although some teens inadvertently encounter sexual material online, others, in exploring their sexuality, intentionally seek out sexually explicit material (Cameron et al, 2005). Mitchel, Finkelhor, and Wolak (2003) found that over 90% of children between the ages of 8 and 16 had viewed pornography online. Of these, 71% of the children had accidentally stumbled onto a pornographic site or had been exposed to sexually explicit material through a pop-up banner, while 29% had intentionally visited pornography sites.
Aside from seeking or stumbling onto sexual content, young people also participate in posting sexual content online. Stern (2002) found that many “girls’ home pages online feature themes rarely spoken about, as the girls say, IRL (‘In Real Life’)” (p. 266). In addition, many female adolescents not only talk openly online about sexual content, they also post sexually explicit pictures (Stern, 2002). Moreover, content on girls’ personal web pages frequently include descriptive writings that discuss sexuality and their sites often include links to “various sexual communities or subcultures” (Stern, 2002, p. 282). Freeman-Longo (2000) suggests that one reason for adolescents’ sexually explicit behaviors and attitudes may be due to the vast amounts of sexual material teens are exposed to. When young online users see others of similar ages posting sexual content, it “legitimizes in the minds of the youth online that people their age are also involved in real-life and online sexual activities. It normalizes the experience” (Freeman-Longo, 2000). Despite the findings on adolescents’ involvement with sexual content online, Cho and Cheon (2005) found that parents are typically unaware of the amount of sexually explicit material their children are exposed to online as well as of the sexual activities in which they engage.
Given the relative newness of MySpace, it is not surprising that sparse academic research has examined the content users post on their sites. MySpace is currently the most popular site among teens and young adults; however, due to growing media reports about questionable content on users’ pages and risks that the content poses for attracting online predators, it is important to examine MySpace and determine what material is being posted. The following research questions are proposed:
RQ1a: What type of personal information do users include on their opening
RQ1b: What, if any, type of visual sexual material is included on the opening
page of users sites?
RQ1c: How many sites include sexual profanity?
RQ2: Are there gender differences in the type of personal information that is
given on the sites?
RQ3: Are there gender differences in the type of sexual content posted on the
RQ4: Are there gender differences in the exposure of sexual contact?
RQ5: Do younger adolescents give out more personal information than do
older adolescent users?
RQ6: Do younger adolescents include more sexual content than do older
Stern (2002) found that girls tend to post more sexually explicit written comments on their personal web pages and often include links to sexual communities. In light of those findings, the following hypotheses are proposed:
H1: Females’ sites will contain more links to sexual communities (e.g. sexually
explicit or pornography sites) than will males’ sites.
H2: Females’ sites will contain more sexual profanity than will males’ sites.
The methodology for this study was a quantitative content analysis. A total of 700 MySpace sites were randomly selected from a purposive sample from various locations throughout the United States (100 from the Northeast, 100 from the Northwest, 100 from the South, 100 from the South East, 100 from the Midwest, 100 from the West and 100 from Hawaii). In addition to using zip codes in each area of the country, the sample was divided into half from a large city (population of more than 300,000) and half from a mid-size city (less than 80,000) resulting in 350 sites from large cities and 350 from mid-size cities from each area of the country.
Specific MySpace sites were randomly selected by using the “browser” option within the search option of the social networking site. On the browser selection page, the researcher was given the option to search by various categories such as sex, age, smoker/nonsmoker, sexual preference, etc. Within this browser option, both males and females were selected, all ages were selected, and all other categories were marked as “no preference” or “search both or all.” In addition, only those sites that had been “recently updated” were searched. Once the browser selection for the search was completed, the zip code for the selected city and location of the country was entered into the search. After the search results appeared, every 15th user was selected for coding, which resulted in a total of 274 males’ sites and 426 females’ sites.
After opening the individual user’s site, several variables were coded. First, specific information was coded about the site, which included state of search, zip code of search, and user MySpace URL. Next, the sex and age of the user was coded.
Once the site was opened and general information was coded, the following categories were coded based on their presence or amount of specific variables on the opening page of the site:
1. Personal information: personal comment, 1st name only, 1st and last name, last name only, nickname, personal address, hometown, picture of self, picture of self & others, phone number, and email/IM address.
2. Sexual visual content: sexual poses, see through clothing, partial frontal nudity (male), partial frontal nudity (female), full nudity (male), full nudity (female), exposure of bare buttocks, exposure of genitalia, masturbation, copulation, homosexual contact, animated/cartoon nudity, animated/cartoon sexual acts.
3. Pornography: links to pornography, auto links to pornography (those sites that automatically “jumped” to pornography sites when the researcher clicked on the user’s site).
4. Language: profanity (curse words without sexual words), sexual profanity (any profanity that included the word fuck).
5. Private Setting: Site set to private (nothing visible except the profile information).
After pilot testing the sites to come up with the coding categories, the researcher learned that both coders (the author and one additional coder) would have to code the sites at the exact same time due to frequent changes on individuals’ MySpace sites (users frequently change their material or add new friends) (e.g., some users added friends or made changes to their sites daily). The main researcher (author) and a research assistant spent over 10 hours training. Training and coding was conducted in a computer lab that was closed to other students at the time. Using Cohen’s Kappa, inter-coder reliability was .95. Once inter-coder reliability was established on 10% of the sample, the author coded the remainder of the sites using the same training techniques.
RQ1a asked what type of personal information was included on users’ sites. Users included a variety of personal information on their sites, from their ages to the personal addresses. Table 1 shows a breakdown of the percentage of personal information included on users’ sites.
Personal Information Included on Opening Page of MySpace Sites
Picture of Self Only 81
Personal Comment 70
1st Name Only 53
1st & Last name 12
Picture of Self & Other 6
Phone Number 4
Email/IM Address 3
Personal Address 1
In answering RQ1b, the results revealed that more than half of the sites included some variation of sexual content. Table 2 shows the sexual visual content that was posted on users’ MySpace sites.
Sexual Visual Content Posted on the Opening Page of MySpace Sites
Risqué/Sexual Poses (clothed but revealing) 59
Partial Frontal Nudity (male) 28
Partial Frontal Nudity (female) 17
Exposure of Bare Buttocks 14
Links to Pornography 9
See-through Clothing 9
Homosexual Contact 8
Animated/Cartoon Sexual Acts 8
Full Nudity (female) 6
“Other” Visual Sexual Content 6
Auto-jump to Pornography Site 4
Animated/Cartoon Nudity 4
Exposure of Genitalia 4
Full Nudity (male) 2
RQ1c asked how many of the sites contained profanity or sexual profanity. Of the 700 sites examined, 54% of MySpace sites contained profanity and 37% contained sexual profanity (the “f” word).
Results for RQ2, concerning Personal Information, found some gender differences in the type of personal information included on users’ sites. Specifically, females (85%) included pictures of themselves more often than did males (76%), c2 (1, n = 700) = 7.42, p. <.01. In addition, females (6%) were more prone to give out their personal phone numbers than were males (1%), c2 (1, n = 700) = 6.97, p. <.01. There were no significant differences between males and females for any other type of personal information.
Similarly, in answering RQ3, there were significant differences between males and females and how much sexual content was posted on their MySpace sites. Females (67%) included risqué pictures on their sites more frequently than did males (40%), c2 (1, n = 700) = 30.18, p. <.000. In addition to the posting of risqué pictures, females (8%) also included more photos of full nudity of females than did males (1%), c2 (1, n = 700) = 13.81, p. <.000. There were no other significant results for any other type of sexual content between males’ and females’ sites.
RQ4 asked if there were gender differences in exposure of sexual contact (copulation or homosexual activities). A chi-square analysis revealed that females (11%) included pictures of homosexual sexual contact on their sites more often than did males (4%), c2 (1, n = 700) = 7.43, p. <.005.
RQ5 asked if younger adolescents post more personal information on their social networking sites than do older adolescent users. Results revealed significant differences between younger and older adolescents and their posting of two items of personal information—personal addresses and phone numbers. First, younger adolescents (14 or under) (43%) posted their personal addresses more often than did older adolescents, 16-17 year olds (.5%), c2 (8, n = 700) = 187.80, p. <.000. In addition, younger adolescents (12%) included their phone numbers more often than did 16-17 year olds (7%), 18-19 year olds (6%), c2 (8, n = 700) = 19.75, p. <.01. These results suggest that younger adolescents are more willing to give out their address and phone numbers online than are older adolescents. Are younger adolescents, then, more innocent, naïve, or bigger risk-takers?
RQ6 asked if there were any differences between younger adolescents and older adolescents and their posting of sexual content on their social networking sites. Results revealed only one significant difference in the type of sexual content posted between different user age groups. Interestingly, those who did not include their age (69%) were found to include photographs of nude females more so than did those who were 14 or under (0%), 14-15 (0%), 16-17 (1.5%), 18-19 (4.1%), 20-22 (10%), 23-30 (4%) and all other age groups (0%), c2 (8, n = 700) = 119.12, p. <.000. However, given that the users did not include their ages, these results are inclusive in determining if younger or older adolescents post more types of sexual content on their sites.
H1 one stated that females’ sites would contain more links to sexual communities (e.g. sexually explicit or pornography sites) than would males’ sites. Results supported hypothesis one and found that females’ sites (5.2%) had more links to sexual communities than did males’ sites (0%), c2 (1, n = 700) = 14.61, p. <.000. Even though the results found a significant difference between males’ and females’ sites, the percentage of females’ sites that contained links to sexual communities was relatively small.
Finally, H2 stated that females’ sites would contain more sexual profanity than would males’ sites. No significant differences in the amount of sexual profanity between females’ and males’ sites were found.
Based on the results of this study, adolescents are not only posting personal information on their social networking sites, they are also including sexual content. It is obvious from the results of this study that teens are using MySpace sites to express who they are (or at least who they think they are). As previous research suggests, adolescence is a period of a child’s life in which they begin to consciously participate in constructing their identity (Stern, 2002).
The results also found that females were including sexual content as well as links to sexual communities (e.g., pornography) on their sites. These results mirror those found by Stern (2002) and females’ online behaviors and posting links to sexual communities on their personal web pages. Koch (1993) stated, sexuality is “an integral part of development” (p. 293). However, even though self-expression and sexuality may be part of teen development, the concern lies in the fact that this material (personal information and sexual content) is being posted online and is readily accessible by a mass audience. Research tells us that posting information such as this places a teen at a possible risk and may serve to entice an unwanted stranger (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 2006). Moreover, child predators seek out those with which they can obtain personal information in order to gain trust. “This trust can be used to lure children and teens into a false sense of security, making them vulnerable to ‘grooming’ and enticement to meet in person” (National Center for Missing and Exploited children, 2006, p. 1). Including sexual content on social networking sites may potentially increase the likelihood of solicitations by strangers and may place teens, especially adolescent girls who post sexual content, at possible risk. As Freeman-Longo (2000) suggests, posting risqué content and exposing themselves only increases the chances for sexual activity.
As the literature states, it is easy to see why teens are including sexual content on their online sites, given that they are exposed to sex in the various media outlets on a daily basis. When teens see other teens posting sexual content online, along with seeing it constantly in other media, it only serves to further “normalize” sexual activities (Freeman-Longo, 2000).
Areas for Future Research
Given the growing phenomenon of MySpace and the lack of research in this area, there are many areas that can be and should be examined in future research. With more than 60 million users, observing 700 sites is merely a glance into this popular site. Although this research examined a diverse and large sample, it is only a small fraction as to what may be online. Future research should examine more sites and explore other areas. Given that many of the sites were linked to or automatically jumped to pornography, future research should examine whether young people are indeed viewing pornography through links on MySpace. In addition, given that some of these pornographic sites state they were “looking for new girls; send your pics today,” one could speculate that the porn industry is attempting to recruit young people from these sites. These areas should be examined in future research.
Another area of concern that future research should examine lies within the findings showing that young people are posting sexual content and to a mass audience. Even though they may be stretching their “developing wings” and formulating their identities, they may potentially be placing themselves at risk. Future research should further examine the reasons why teens post this type of information and if they understand the possible implications that could result from these activities.
Finally, future research should examine the parents’ roles in their teens’ use of sites, such as MySpace. Are parents aware of what their children are posting online? In addition, do teens tell their parents what they are posting online? It is unlikely that the answer to this last question is yes. As I neared the completion of examining the sites, I decided to record some of the comments that teens posted along side their sexual photos. Here are but two examples of many. Next to a partially nude picture of herself (shot from the back), one young female said the following: “I’m kind of undercover on this MySpace thing. I don’t want my friends and family to see this account... If you want to find out more about me don’t be shy to ask…” She had 8378 friends and links to sexually explicit and pornographic material. On another young female’s site, which also had sexual poses, the female said the following to a friend in the “comments” section: “Sorry I left in a hurry on the last message. My Mom came into my room and I had to hurry and get off before she saw anything…” Although these are only two examples, it is likely that parents are unaware of the material teens are posting online and furthermore, they may be unaware of the possible risks their teens are “exposing” themselves to.
MySpace is relatively new in its inception but it is growing every day and is extremely popular among young people. However, many teens seem to have a false sense of security in thinking they can post any personal or sexual material on their sites without any risks. The literature and these findings suggest that teens need to be educated on the implications that can result from their online activities.
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Inquiries regarding this paper should be sent to:
Tamyra Pierce, Ph.D.
Department of Mass Communication & Journalism
2225 East Ramon Ave M/S MF10
Fresno, CA 93740
Phone: (559) 278-2632
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