By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
A graduate of Clovis High School is researching the popular social networking Web site MySpace.
Tamyra Pierce, assistant professor and graduate director of mass communications and journalism at California State University in Fresno, has linked use of MySpace by California high school students to drops in grades.
Her research also shows MySpace content is inundated with sexual images and the Web site allows strangers to contact students.
Pierce graduated from Clovis High School in 1979 and has been employed at California State University since 2003.
Currently, she is researching addiction and MySpace.
Q:When did your research of MySpace begin?
A:A year and half ago, I started seeing media reports of young people contacted by strangers (through MySpace). That was the first wave of my research — looking at teens who talked on MySpace.
Q:What teens did you study?
A:I studied 300 California high school students from ages 14 to 19.
Q:What did you find?
A:I was surprised by how much (teens) trusted strangers, how often they had been contacted by strangers and gave out personal information.
Q:Tell us about your study of MySpace sites.
A:That study (of teens) led me to look at the MySpace sites. I looked at 700 MySpace sites from all over the world. I randomly selected every 15th site in given ZIP code regions.
Q:What did you find in that project?
A:Over half of the sites contained some form of sexual or risqué content, from poses to full-blown pornography.
MySpace sites of people in larger cities had more sexual content than MySpace sites of people in smaller cities.
Q:What was the most disturbing part of your research?
A:The most disturbing part is that young people are trusting total strangers. They are talking with total strangers who may or may not be a predator, and they have no inhibitions about giving out personal information. It’s almost like they have a false sense of security behind their computer.
Research tells us the computer is a sexual predator’s greatest friend. Predators can more quickly develop a rapport and gain trust.
Q:Are parents aware of their children’s use of MySpace?
A:I asked students last year if their parents knew about their MySpace site, and a surprisingly high percentage of students — about 40 percent — said yes. (But) only 26 percent said their parents had seen their sites.
Q:How do parents respond to your research?
A:Almost all of them say they are a little shocked. MySpace is so new they don’t quite understand what is going on. A lot of eyes are being opened. Parents are opening their own MySpace sites so they can keep track of their kids, which is great. They are getting involved. That’s what it’s all about. You don’t put (your child) out in front of the road and say, “Have fun playing. Try not to get hurt.”
Q:Is there an age limit for MySpace users?
A:The age limit is 16, but right now it’s easy to get around.
Q:Do you believe parents should forbid children of a certain age from using the Internet?
A:We just need to educate young people about precautions they need to take.
Computers are wonderful tools for young people and MySpace is a fun thing for them to do, but it can also have negative effects — the whole purpose of this research is to educate young people.
Q:What can parents do to protect their children from the Internet?
A:Keep the computer in an open area and not in the child’s bedroom. That is where inappropriateness may start to develop.
Be routine in checking and seeing what they are doing online.
Tell teens to be aware of the pictures they put up. Some of them invite sexual predators.
Q:Any advice for teens using MySpace?
A:Don’t post your phone number, your address or any other personal information, such as your last name, online. If you are not 100 percent sure you know a person, you shouldn’t talk to them.
Q:Tell us more about your research on addiction and MySpace.
A:I just finished talking with someone who spends seven hours a day on MySpace. I am trying to see if there is true addiction to MySpace based on what psychology defines addiction as — when you are addicted, it preoccupies your mind and interferes with daytime activities.
Q: Has MySpace responded to your research?
Q:What drives your research?
A:I am interested in media’s effect on kids.
Q:How did your career researching media’s effect on children begin?
A:In the (late) 1980s, I started researching video games (to obtain a master’s degree) because they were becoming a popular item among kids. (Then) I went to the University of Missouri-Columbia (in the late ’90s to obtain my Ph.D.). That’s about the time school shootings started (including the Columbine school shootings). I started looking at the shootings and the media’s involvement. That research showed that the more media exposure of school shootings, the more (likelihood) of copycat situations.
Q:Can the media reduce copycat situations?
A:One of the things the media can do to lessen copycat situations is to lessen repetitive coverage. Also, the media can (avoid giving information) about the actual shooters because that information allows people that might contemplate doing a shooting to identify with the shooters.
— Based on an interview by CNJ Staff Writer Marlena Hartz and edited for clarity and style.