Since late in 2003 online social networking sites have become an important element of teen culture in the United States and elsewhere. The mothership of these sites is currently MySpace.com — it currently ranks among the top 10 most visited sites on the internet. Most of these visitors, of course, are teens. What adult visitors normally experience is amazement and disgust.

Sites like MySpace are described as free platforms for personal websites. Teens can communicate with friends in school, keep in touch with distant friends and link up to new friends with common interests. In the process they end up disclosing a wealth of personal information — from birth dates and phone numbers, to answers to vacuous questions like “if you were a sexy ninja would you still get drunk on Fridays?”, to far more intimate details.

MySpace accounts feature an online diary, a message board, where every and anyone leaves unfiltered messages and photos; a photo storage space, where teens keep gobs of photos of themselves and their friends, often obscene; and a "My Friends Space" section where site owners will collect hyperlinked photos of all of their “friends” (sometimes running into the thousands).

For businesses, these sites are a treasure trove. In one of the great ironies of pop culture, MySpace is billed as a online community offering personal space and freedom, but its real purpose is to make them online consumers. Why else would News Corporation, the media behemoth owned by Rupert Murdoch, have purchased MySpace for a cool US$580 million last year?

Like merchants that follow the armies of yesteryear, a multitude of commercial sites quench teens’ thirst for style by selling web designs, usually called “skins”, for MySpace account holders. You can think of them as digital clothing fads: a new skin for each new season. Teens buy software which allows them to upload games, music, or mouse pointer modifications. You name it, a secondary site has designed it and sold it to teens interested in showing off their hip new MySpace site to their friends.

MySpace.com began as the music promotion brainchild of  Californian musician Tom Anderson and software marketer Chris DeWolfe. Anderson used his music and Hollywood connections to turn MySpace into the coolest online network in the world where bands, starlets, and models could post music and photos and allow fans to chat on their message boards. But the focus of MySpace has long since switched from simple band promotion to product promotion. And it has been very successful: it now accounts for ten per cent of all online advertisements.

It is not only students who use online networks like MySpace. Pornographers use it, too. They set up MySpace accounts and use software that “crawls” through the site and posts hyperlinked pornographic pictures and messages to entice youngsters into visiting their sites. Predators also use it. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported 1,224 incidents of “online enticement” last year, some of them involving MySpace. Realising that many teens readily post a wealth of personal information, including addresses and mobile phone numbers, parents and educators have begun holding seminars with students to explain the dangers of online self-expression.

Unfortunately teenagers exploit each other as much as they are exploited by adults. Friendship sites have spawned a virtual world which is crass, comfortable with pornography, and nearly illiterate (MySpace musings make instant messaging read like Shakespeare). A look at MySpace accounts of young teens is an introduction into the dark alleys of pop culture: death metal begins to throb as pictures of body-pierced Goth musicians, body-painted black and white with leather attire, load up on the site; paragraph after droning paragraph tell how “gay” so and so is, or how “awesome” Seinfeld re-runs are. There are smatterings of violent cartoons and half or fully naked celebrities festoon the site beside dozens of small advertisements.

Worst of all are the photos of the young teenagers themselves. These reveal what I will call “the dance”. This involves teenage girls posting photos of themselves in skimpy garb in sexually provocative poses. Then they send hyperlinks of these images to male acquaintances from school or just to someone they met in cyberspace. Anyone can look at these images. To adults this sounds crazy and even dangerous. But too many girls think of it as a way to become popular. It’s “just fun” or “not that bad”.

The adult world is beginning to react. A number of schools now ban MySpace from their lists of acceptable computer lab websites. Parents have begun to ban it at home. Employers are learning to search MySpace for job applicants’ accounts to avoid associating their company with scandal. Newspapers have started to write feature stories about girls who ran off with older men whom they met through a MySpace account. Schools are organising seminars to warn students about the dangers of online self-expression.

However, many teens know how to keep one step ahead of the authorities. Another site, Facebook, enables teens to mask their participation in “the dance”. Facebook’s new high school version is a closed network requiring an invitation from a current member. It cannot be examined by search engines and it filters out explicit pornography. So naïve parents will see a relatively cleaner website. But in fact, Facebook can be used as a portal to grungy MySpace accounts featuring those steamy images but without personal details which would enable worried parents to search for them. 

Many companies have seen MySpace and Facebook’s success and are desperately trying to imitate it and cash in on a huge potential market. The promise made to teens — that they can finally have a space of their own — is false: thousands of companies, pornographers, and band promoters are scrambling to fill that space with advertising. Parents, schools, and communities need to recognise the danger. Otherwise, teens will be left alone, dancing in the dark.

Matthew Mehan is US Editor of MercatorNet.

Matthew Mehan is a poet, scholar, teacher, speech writer, and musician. He is dear friends with illustrator John Folley. He earned a Ph.D. studying Shakespeare's teachings on poetry as an indispensable...