Talking to Strangers on MySpace: 

Teens’ Use of Internet Social Networking Sites

 

Tamyra A. Pierce

California State University, Fresno

 

Publication Date: November 7, 2006

Journal of Media Psychology, Volume 11, No. 3, Fall 2006

 

 

 

 

Abstract

 

This study examined the growing phenomenon of teens’ use of Internet social networking sites, specifically MySpace. Three hundred and one high school students participated in the survey research. The survey sought to assess the following:  (a) general information about teens’ social networking habits, (b) motivations for using social networking sites, (c) the content teens post on their sites, and (d) the interactions with strangers on their sites. The results revealed that a large majority of teens have a MySpace account. Many teens reported that their parents knew they had an Internet social networking site but only a small percentage of teens reported that their parents had actually seen their site. More than half of the teens reported that they had included personal information, such as their real name, age and a picture of themselves on their sites. Females reported posting risqué material more than did males; however, males reported posting unlawful material more than did females. There was a significant correlation between teens’ trust level and their propensity to give out personal information to strangers, and their willingness to meet with a stranger face-to-face. More than half of the teens reported being frequently contacted by strangers but younger teens reported, more often than older teens, being asked to “meet” with a stranger face-to-face.

 

Introduction

             In New Jersey, a 14 year old girl was found naked and murdered in a trash can after allegedly conversing with an older man on her social networking site.  In Texas, a 26 year old man was arrested after sexually soliciting a 15 year old girl on MySpace (Marvel & Churnin, 2006). In New York, an adult male was arrested for sexually soliciting a 16 year old after locating her from the information she had provided online on her social networking site (Martinez, 2006). These stories appear almost daily in the media and warrant an investigation into teens’ use of social networking sites.

Social networking sites, such as MySpace, Xanga and Facebook, have become almost overnight phenomena and are attracting young people by the millions (Bausch & Han, 2006), primarily to talk with friends or to make new friends.  However, teens are engaging in risky behaviors and are beginning to worry parents and public officials (Marvel & Churnin, 2006).

Some researchers suggest that the Internet and social networking sites have become the new preying grounds for pedophiles and other child sexual offenders (Bowker & Gray, 2004). MySpace users are supposed to be over 14 years of age; however, many young users are not only finding their way onto the site but are also posting personal and sexual material which some researchers suggest may potentially increase the risk of enticing child predators (National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 2006; Bremer & Rauch, 1998). A 2003 National Internet Safety study reported 19% of adolescents had been sexually solicited on the Internet and 25% of the youth had been exposed to unwanted sexual material (Mitchell, Finkelhor & Wolak, 2003).

Unfortunately, there is a lack of scholarly research on this subject even though media reports of “potential dangers” have increased.  The purpose of this research is to examine teens’ use of social networking sites and determine if they are engaging in risky behaviors on their social networking sites.

Social Networking Sites

MySpace was originally created by Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson to promote their band, the Raveonettes (Foo, 2006). MySpace launched in 2003 as a place for visitors to explore new independent artists, but it quickly grew into far more than a place to hear and learn about new music. Today, MySpace is defined as a social networking site and is likened to a personal Internet diary. Users can post pictures of themselves, write blogs, include personal information about themselves, and talk with other users and post their conversations on the “friends” message board, allowing any visitor to see the conversations they have with others.  MySpace has more than 60 million users, of which an estimated 10 million are under the age of 17 (Bausch & Han, 2006). Although users of MySpace are able to create profiles about themselves, include photographs/videos, list personal interests and seek out others within the site whom they can add to their friends’ list and chat via the written comments section (Hopkins, 2003), the site clearly warns users that posting information on the site is voluntary and is available for public access (MySpace.com).

Although their original target audience was 20 year olds who were interested in music, MySpace, as well as other social networking sites, is now attracting an immense following among middle and high school students (Odum, 2006). Nielsen//Netratings announced that the top 10 social networking sites grew 47% between 2005 and 2006. MySpace led the growth with a 367% increase. In addition to being the number one social networking site, MySpace also has the highest retention rate with 67% of its visitors returning (Howe, 2006). But what’s the appeal for having a social networking site?

Uses and Gratification Perspective

The uses and gratification perspective proposes that individuals make active choices and have expectations about media and media content (Blumler, 1979). These expectations, along with social and psychological origins of needs, facilitate media use and lead to different patterns of media exposure (Katz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974). Based on individuals’ needs and expectations, people will actively select a medium or media content they perceive will meet their needs. However, the perceived value of the outcome joins in one’s expectations about the media in determining if an individual’s needs are satisfied (Galloway & Meek, 1981). In addition, Blumler (1985) suggested that social circumstances or needs produce a desire to compensate through media consumption. 

The uses and gratification perspective was first introduced in television studies (Greenburg, 1974; Rubin, 1983) and has since expanded to other mediums, such as the Internet (Song, LaRose, Eastin & Lin, 2004; Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000; Korgaonkar & Wolin, 1999). Research has found that the primary motives for using the Internet include information seeking and to fulfill interpersonal needs (Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000). Results suggests that those who lack or avoid face-to-face personal interactions with others are more inclined to use the Internet as a form of interpersonal utility (Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000)..

Motives for Using the Internet

Some of the first studies of the Internet suggested that Internet use was largely motivated by the need to gain information (Katz & Aspden, 1996; Kaye, 1998). However, more recent studies have discovered that many of the same reasons for using television also apply to the Internet, such as using it to fulfill the need for entertainment or for social interaction (Ferguson & Perse, 2000).  Ferguson and Perse (2000) found individuals visited particular websites to fulfill specific needs. For instance, visiting entertainment sites and sports sites were related to the following motives:  for entertainment purposes, to pass time, for relaxation and for social interaction. Those who use email or chat lines tend to use them in order to fulfill their motives for entertainment and for information seeking (Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000). 

Youths’ Use of the Internet

            In 2005, more than 21 million adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 had access to and routinely used the Internet (Lenhart, 2005), where a world of information awaits them with just a click of the mouse. Instant messaging, chat rooms, and emails have given adolescents new ways to talk to their friends or make new friends. According to a recent survey of young people’s use of the Internet, teens routinely communicate in chat rooms and IMs (instant messaging) and over 85% stated they use one or both on a daily basis (Hughes, 2006). Teens routinely use instant messaging, which is a type of real time Internet communication that involves private communication between users (Bross, 2005). However, communication with communication boards on social networking sites, such as MySpace, is not real time and is less private, depending on the privacy settings established by the user.  Females, more than males, tend to typically engage more heavily in chat rooms and other communication environments to fulfill their social needs (Louis, 2004; Verhaagen, 2005).  This tendency to want to engage in conversations online, although many times innocent and harmless, has the potential to increase risks of contact with a person who may be wanting to do them harm. Most teens who are sexually solicited online by predators do so because they are unsupervised by their parents (Beebe Asche, Harrison, and Quinlan, 2004). In addition, troubled teens tend to engage in online conversations more frequently than non-troubled teens and are also more likely to be sexually solicited (Mitchel, Finkelhor, and Wolak, 2001).

        A recent study by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (2006) revealed that communicating in a public forum and posting personal information (e.g., name, age, address, or phone number) places teens at a greater risk and may serve to entice a predator. Specifically, 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).  In 2001, research found that there was an increase in this type of trust building and meetings online between adult sex offenders and adolescents, especially with teenage girls (Arnaldo, 2001).

Online Risks

One in eight youths report that they have discovered that someone they thought was a younger person, with whom they were talking with online, was actually an adult pretending to be much younger (Hughes, 2006). Hughes (2006) found that over 60% of teens said they had spoken with a stranger online and approximately half said they had spoken with a stranger four or more times. More that 1/3 of adolescents in another survey revealed they had talked about meeting someone they had just met on the Internet (Polly Klass Foundation, 2006). Although these results reveal disturbing statistics, there is no scholarly evidence to show a causal connection between talking with strangers online and actually meeting them in person. Teens, in an effort to construct their own personal identity, are motivated to converse with others, sometimes even talk about sexual content (Rice, 2001), but this does not imply that they will automatically engage in behaviors that put them at risk. However, sexual conversations with strangers have been found to increase the risk of unwanted sexual solicitations (Mitchell, Finkelhor, & Wolak, 2001).

Based on law enforcement estimates, over 50,000 sexual predators are on the Internet every minute a day (National Center of Missing & Exploited Children, 2006).  According to Hughes (2006), 89% of sexual solicitations are made in chat rooms or instant messaging. Research shows that teens who participate in online discussions are more likely to be the targets of online sexual solicitations (Finkelhor, Mitchell, and Wolak, 2002). In addition, those teens who are in need of attention tend to actively seek out companionship online and may therefore engage in risky behaviors (i.e., give out personal information) (Beebe, Asche, Harrison, & Quinlan, 2004). In 2002, one out of every five adolescents had been contacted over the Internet by a sexual predator. One out of 4 adolescents who had been contacted by a stranger admitted to having engaged in talk about sexual topics. In addition, girls, more than boys, admit to being asked sexual questions by strangers (Polly Klass Foundation, 2006). Despite these potential risks, 52% of teen Internet users report little concern about being contacted online by a stranger (Lenhart, Rainie, & Lewis, 2001).

            Although past research has studied Internet use, very few researchers have examined teens’ use. In addition, given the overwhelming popularity of MySpace and the growing media reports of online predators, it is important to examine teens’ uses of social networking sites, such as MySpace. Due to the lack of research in this area, the following research questions are proposed:

RQ1a: How many teens report having a social networking site (SNS)?

RQ1b: How often do teens frequent their SNS?

RQ1c: Do teens’ parents know about their SNS?

RQ2:  Is there a difference in motivations for using SNSs between males and

           females?

RQ3a: What type of content do teens post on their social networking site?

RQ3b:  Is there a difference between males and females in type of content included on

            the SNS?

RQ3c: Is there a difference in content posted between teens who have their

computer in their bedroom and those who do not?

RQ4a: Is there a correlation between teens’ Internet trust level and their interaction

            with strangers?

RQ4b: Do younger teens report being asked to meet with a stranger face-to-face

more than do older teens?

Methods

Participants

            The participants consisted of 301 students from four High Schools in a large western American city.  The age of the participants ranged from 14-19 with the average age being between 15-16 years old (SD = .63). Fifteen percent were freshman, 32% sophomores, 26% juniors and 26% were seniors.  The sample consisted of 110 males and 190 females (1 missing).  Of the participants, 80% reported having one or more social networking sites.

Procedures           

The researcher contacted the principals from a total of eight High Schools and asked for permission to conduct survey research on their campuses. Only four principals responded to the researcher’s request and/or allowed access to their school. Once entrance into the school was obtained, a purposive selection of teachers was chosen to gain a sample of students from each school year (e.g., freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior). After obtaining consent from the teachers, parental permission forms were distributed to each student and students were asked to have one or both parents sign the form and then return it prior to the day of the survey. Only those students with parental consent were allowed to complete the survey. The surveys were conducted in the students’ classrooms and the teacher was present during all testing. All students received the same instructions and were told their participation was voluntary and that their identity would remain anonymous. Each participant completed a questionnaire of 64 questions.

Measures

Demographic/SNS Usage.  The first part of the questionnaire consisted of primarily demographic questions (age, sex, year in school) followed by general SNS (social networking site) questions, such as (a) if they had a SNS site and if so, which one, (b) what items they included on the site, (c) how much they used the site, (d) if their parents knew about their site, and (e) if their parents had seen their site and (f) if their parents or schools had discussed risks of the Internet.

SNS motives scale. The SNS motives scale was developed based on two respected motives scales: Rubin’s (1983) television viewing motives scale and Papacharissi and Rubin’s (2000) Internet scale. All of Rubin’s original motives scale was used; however, additional responses from Papacharissi and Rubin’s Internet scale were also included in the corresponding clusters (i.e., “information” responses were included in the information cluster, “social interaction” responses were included in the social interaction cluster, etc.). One additional cluster was added based on speculation as to why teens use social networking sites: peer pressure. 

To determine the final group of clusters, a factor analysis was used with a promax rotation to extract the SNS motives. An eigenvalue of 1.0 or greater was required to retain a factor. In addition, the loading criterion for retaining an item was set at .50/.30.  Each factor (motive) had to contain at least 3 items meeting this criterion. The factor analysis yielded five factors that met the criteria. The analysis accounted for 65% of the variance. Entertainment was the first factor extracted and accounted for 11.5% of the variance. The second item was social interaction and accounted for 10% of the variance after rotation. The third item was companionship and accounted for 9.6% of the variance. The fourth factor was arousal and explained 8.2% of the variance. Finally, the fifth factor was peer pressure and accounted for 4.5% of the variance after rotation. Alpha coefficients for the remaining SNS motives were computed using SPSS and were found to be consistently good for all of the items. The figures are as follows:  companionship (a = .88), social interaction (a = .92), entertainment (a = .95), arousal (a = .87), and peer pressure (a = .85). 

Each cluster had at least three responses. According to both measures’ instructions, the clusters were not identified and the responses were arranged randomly on the questionnaire (Rubin, Palmgreen & Sypher, 1994). For instance, the order appeared as follows: one companionship item, one social interaction item, one entertainment item and so on until the second companionship item was included, followed by the second social interaction item, etc.

SNS contacts and content assessment. Following the sections assessing general uses and motives for having a SNS, students were asked a series of questions about their contacts on social networking sites (e.g. had they been contacted by someone they had never met, had they been asked to be added to their friends’ list by someone they had never met, had they been asked to meet someone they just met on their social networking site, etc.) These questions were measured on a 5 point Likert-type scale with 5 being frequently to 1 being never. Alpha coefficient for these items was good (a = .90).

The next set of questions asked about students’ content on their sites (e.g., if they included risqué images/material (defined as “sexual poses, see-through clothing, or partial or full nudity”), unlawful images/material (defined as “images of drugs or alcohol or use of either, photos of weapons or weapons’ use, or other images that would potentially get you in trouble with the law”) or harmful comments (defined as “saying bad things about another person or threatening another person”) about others on their site). These items were also measured on a 5 point Likert-type scale with 5 being frequently and 1 being never. Reliability for these items was good (a = .84).

Finally, students were asked several questions regarding their trust of people who contact them on their sites and their parents’ involvement with their use on SNSs. These items were measured on a 5 point Likert-type scale with 5 being strongly agree and 1 being strongly disagree.

Results

Research question 1a-1c asked if students had a SNS, how much they visited their site and their parents’ knowledge of their site. Frequency tests revealed the following:

·        80% of students reported to having a MySpace and/or other SNS

·        23% of those reporting to have a MySpace and/or other SNS visited their site many times a day; 34% visited it once a day; 17% visited it once a week

·        42% said their parents knew about their social networking site but only

26% said their parent had seen their SNS

·        Only 15% of the students reported their parents or schools had discussed negative risks of Internet use (SNS, chat rooms, etc).

Research question 2 asked if there was a difference between males and females in motives for using SNSs. Results revealed no significant differences between males and females and the following motives: companionship, social interaction, arousal and peer pressure. However, t-tests did reveal a significant difference between males and females and their motivation to use social networking sites for entertainment. Females (M = 3.26, SD = 1.2), had a SNS to fulfill their need for entertainment more so than did males (M = 2.56, SD = 1.3), t (298) = -3.31, p < .001.  To reduce the probability of a Type I error in evaluating research question 2, a Bonferroni-type correction was conducted by dividing the significance level (.05) by the number of items being tested by the t-tests (6). The corrected p-value of .008 was then used to evaluate the significance levels of research question 2.

Research question 3 (a) asked what type of content teens post on their social networking site. Frequency tests revealed the following:

·        59% included their real name on their SNS and 16% used a fake name while the remaining 25% posted no name at all and/or only a comment.

·         63% posted their real age on their SNS while 21% stated they posted an older age than their real age and 4% posted a younger age than their real age. 12% posted no age at all.

·        62% included a picture of themselves only in their profile section

·        59% also included pictures of themselves and others in their profile section

·        38% included other personal information about themselves, such as where they worked, the name of their school, their cell phone number, etc.

Research question 3 (b) asked if there was a difference between males and females in type of content included on the SNS. T-tests were conducted to test if there was a difference between males and females and including three types of content on their sites: risqué material, unlawful material and hurtful information about others. Results revealed significant differences with risqué material and unlawful material but not with hurtful information. Females (M = 1.57, SD = 1.3) included more risqué material on their sites than did males (M = 1.23, SD = .88), t (298) = 2.69, p < .01. In contrast, males (M = 1.40, SD = 1.3) included more unlawful material on their sites than did females (M = 1.07, SD = .77), t (298) = 2.73, p < .01. However, there was no significant difference between males and females in including hurtful information about others.    

Research question 3 (c) asked if there was a difference in the type of content included on social networking sites between those who had a computer in their bedroom and those who did not. Again, t-tests were conducted between those who had a computer and those who did not on three types of content: risqué, unlawful and hurtful. Results revealed significant differences with risqué material and unlawful material but, again not with hurtful information. Those with computers in their bedrooms included more risqué material on their sites (M = 1.47, SD = 1.1) than did those who did not have a computer in their bedroom (M = 1.23, SD = 1.0), t (298) = 1.97, p < .05. Similarly, those with computers in their bedroom also included more unlawful material on their sites (M = 1.48, SD = 1.1) than did those without a computer in their bedroom (M = 1.08, SD = .97), t (298) = 1.75, p < .05. However, there was no significant difference in including hurtful information about others between those who had a computer in their bedroom and those who did not.   

Research question 4 (a) asked if there was any relationship between teens’ trust level and their interaction with strangers. Tests revealed significant correlations. There was a correlation between trusting strangers online and their willingness to give out personal information, r = .43, p. < .000. In addition, there was a relationship between trusting strangers online and teens’ willingness to put risqué material on their sites, r = .48, p. < .000. Finally, there was a correlation between trusting strangers online and their willingness to meet them in person, r = .62, p. < .000.

Research question 4 (b) asked if younger teens get asked more than older teens to meet with a stranger face-to-face. Analysis of variance revealed a significant difference, F = 2.48 (1, 295), p. < .05. Teens who reported they were 14 responded more frequently to being asked to meet face-to-face with a stranger they just met online (M = 2.1, SE = .21), followed by 15-16 year olds (M = 1.26, SE = .80), 17-18 year olds (M = 1.20, SE = .10), and finally 19-20 year olds (M = .5, SE = 1.1) (see Table 1). 

Table 1

Teens’ Report of Being Asked to Meet Face-to-Face

_____________________________________________________________________

Age of Teen                                                    M                                 SE

_____________________________________________________________________

14 year old                                                      2.10                             .21

15-16 year olds                                               1.26                             .80

17-18 year olds                                               1.20                             .10

19-20 year olds                                                 .50                             1.1

_____________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

Discussion

            Results of this study reveal that not only do an overwhelming number of teens have a social networking site but more than half of the teens frequent their site once to many times per day. Although nearly half of the parents are said to know about these sites, only a small percentage are said to have actually seen their child’s site. Moreover, the results of this study reveal that only a small percentage of teens are being educated by their parents or schools about potential risks of certain online behaviors. Unfortunately, these results reflect the same general findings of past research (Stahl & Fritz, 2002), suggesting that parents and schools have done little in the past few years to monitor or educate young people about online risks.

            The results revealed that more than anything else, teens, especially females, are motivated to use SNSs in order to fulfill their need for entertainment. Since there is no current academic research on teens’ use of social networking sites, there is little with which to compare these results. However, past research has found that individuals typically use email or chat rooms to fulfill their motives for entertainment and information seeking (Papacharissi & Rubin, 2000). Past research also suggests that females generally use chat rooms and other Internet communication tools more so than do boys, and they use these tools to fulfill social needs. Although social networking sites have communication tools and allow users to communicate with others, the results of the current study did not find that users are motivated to use SNS to fulfill social needs. The current results revealed that female teens use the sites more for entertainment than for a communication or as social interaction tools. Although this study did not ask participants if other Internet sources fulfill other needs, perhaps teenage girls continue to fulfill their social needs through email, chat rooms or IM, just as past research has found, and are fulfilling their need for fun with social networking sites. Uses and gratification theory suggest that individuals use different mediums or media content in order to fulfill different needs. Similarly, perhaps within the Internet, different sites or services fulfill different needs. Future research should examine this area in more detail.

If females are using social networking sites to fulfill their need for entertainment, the other results found in the current study may suggest that their “entertainment” is less than innocent. Specifically, females, more than males, reported including more risqué material on their sites. These behaviors may entice unwanted sexual solicitation from strangers online. Based on the research by the Polly Klass Foundation (2006), females are frequently asked sexual questions by strangers online. Posting risqué material may entice this type of interaction as previous research has found (Mitchell, Finkelhor, Wolak, 2001), and thus may put some teens at risk. Since the current study did not ask participants why they posted risqué material online, no definitive conclusions can be made. However, one could speculate that one reason why teenage girls are posting risqué pictures of themselves online is

due to their exposure to sexually suggestive or explicit material they see on a daily basis in the media (e.g., music videos, television programs, movies, advertisements, etc.). As Bryant and Zillmann (2002) state, “sex in media is not limited to explicit portrayals of intercourse or nudity but rather may include any representation that portrays or implies sexual behavior, interest, or motivation” (p. 308). Constant exposure to sexual content only serves to normalize the behavior and thus may be teaching young females that posing sexually (clothed or not) is normal behavior and furthermore, is expected behavior from women (Traudt, 2005).

            The results also revealed a correlation between teens’ trust levels and interaction with strangers. There was not only a relationship between trusting strangers online and teens’ willingness to give out personal information or post risqué material but there was also a strong correlation between trust and willingness to meet with a stranger face-to-face. Based on previous research (Arnaldo, 2001), this relationship between trust and willingness to meet may potentially put teens at a risk, especially teenage girls, if the person with whom they are conversing with is a predator or someone who wants to do them harm.

Strengths & Limitations

            This study had several strengths worth noting. First, the sample was representative of the population who are using social networking sites (teens). Second, the sample size of 301 was good. Third, the study was conducted just prior to an onset of media attention in the local community about MySpace. After the surveys were completed, stories about MySpace and predators were on most local television news programs, on national media programs, and in local newspapers. Therefore, due to completing the surveys prior to this media blitz, the researcher is somewhat confident that there is less likelihood that any of the results were tainted by the media stories.

            Along with strengths of the study, there were some limitations. The main concern relates to the self report measures. Without actually observing the teens’ behaviors on the Internet, it is a concern that teens may not have been completely honest with their responses. Specifically, teens’ reports of using their real age and posting other personal information may be less than accurate. Teens may have felt inhibited about giving out real information with their peers sitting directly next to them. In addition, some teens may have responded in ways they felt the researcher wanted them to respond. These elements may have created problems with the internal validity of the study. Future research should address these weaknesses.  Secondly, parents were not surveyed and may have reported differently than did their child. For instance, although teens indicated that very few of their parents had actually seen their sites, perhaps parents are secretly keeping track of the teens’ Internet behaviors. Although this study revealed important information about teens’ use on social networking sites, much more research needs to be conducted.

Conclusion

            MySpace is a relatively new phenomenon that is growing in popularity by the day,  primarily among young people. Although the Internet has many positive elements, it also has negative elements. Young people are naturally curious and communicate with others and explore all aspects of life in an effort to construct their own identity. But communicating with strangers may put them at risk. According to Bowker and Gray (2004), the computer is a sex offender’s closest companion because it allows a level of anonymity that is not available in the real world. This “anonymity is a unique aspect of the Internet…” that fuels sexual crimes (Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2005). A 48 year old man might normally have a difficult time luring a young teen girl but with the Internet he can create any persona he wants and immediately engage in conversation with a younger person.

            On a personal note: As parents, educators and as a society, we cannot possibly hover over our kids every minute of every day, but we can certainly teach them to be safe when it comes to social networking sites and the Internet in general. The computer and the Internet can be educational and even fun, but it is important for young people to realize there are potential risks.

 

 

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Inquiries should be sent to:

Tamyra Pierce, Ph.D.

California State University, Fresno

Department of Mass Communication & Journalism

2225 East Ramon Ave M/S MF10

Fresno, CA 93740

tpierce@csufresno.edu

Phone:  (559) 278-2632

 

 

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