In this Saturday Night Live sketch, Andy Samberg conducts a MySpace seminar to show people how to create a MySpace page so they can “communicate with more than six million young people currently on MySpace.” He notes that the people taking his class are slightly older than he expected and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a mother, admits that she’s taking the class because her teenage daughter has been spending all her time on MySpace so she wanted to see what all the fuss was about. When Samberg asks, “And the rest of you?” the camera pans out to a room full of men who are clearly all child predators. The sketch goes through the conventions of making a MySpace profile, such as creating a username, displaying your age, uploading an avatar, etc. The predators ask shady hypothetical questions, such as, “If my, uh, son was 45, he could say he was 15?” create usernames such as “9thgradesk8rboi,” and use pictures of Chad Michael Murray as their avatars.
This sketch humorously conveys the discourse around the cons of anonymity on MySpace. People are able to put whatever age, username or profile picture they want because MySpace doesn’t have a way of policing the accuracy of that information. In Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life, danah boyd notes how this technological affordance can technically give teens a measure of privacy protection. They can–and often are encouraged by their parents to– hide their age and gender so that undesired people cannot find them (Although boyd does note that teens usually do this to block out their parents). As depicted in this sketch, however, this also means sexual predators can lie about their age/name/appearance to lure teens into talking to and meeting with them.
The sketch represents and pokes fun at the discourse about parents’ fears of their children using social media sites. My parents have brought up the dangers of friending strangers on MySpace or Facebook on more than several occasions. They cite seemingly countless news stories about girls who meet people on SNSs and get coerced into meeting face to face, only to end up getting kidnapped or assaulted by sexual predators. The media has a tendency to latch onto these stories, inciting panic among parents. In Social Steganography: Privacy in Networked Publics, boyd and Alice Marwick discusses the notion of “stranger danger,” used to “justify young people’s exclusion from public places” (25). With the proliferation of “Stranger Danger” messages transmitted from the news and educational campaigns, public parks went from child-friendly spaces to dangerous areas where strangers with deviant intentions prey on children. boyd and Marwick note how “these same moral panics have been used to explain why teens should not be using social network sites” (25).
Parents who don’t know anything about SNSs other than what they’ve heard from the news get the impression that the majority of kids are on these sites to talk to strangers. That’s exactly what my parents thought when they found out I had a MySpace page. This is certainly not the case. Through her interviews with teens, boyd found that one of the biggest reasons why teens are so compelled to join social network sites is because all their friends are on them. They act as virtual spaces for teens to socialize with existing friends. As boyd and Marwick state, “Teens use social media to get to know people who are more acquaintances than friends or to meet friends-of-friends. A small minority of teens seek out broader audiences, welcoming strangers who seem to share their world view” (5). I personally only follow people I know on Facebook. If I receive a friend request from a name I don’t recognize, I ignore it. Likewise, in her study, “As soon as you get on Bebo you just go mad”: young consumers and the discursive construction of teenagers online, Rebekah Willett found that kids on Bebo were mainly interested in communicating with “immediate friends rather than making contacts in the wider world. By being on Bebo where they only talk with their peers, they are safe inside the home (not on the streets) and safe from online predators.” Being members of the “net generation,” as Willett puts it, they have the skills and knowledge of protecting and self-regulating themselves on the internet.
This also means teens know how to hide themselves not only from predators, but from their parents as well. As boyd and Marwick point out, teens and adults have completely different understandings of privacy on SNSs. Adults want to make sure their kids are safe from predators, but teens want privacy from their parents. Understandably so. No one wants their mother breathing down their neck every time they post on a friend’s wall. It’s not that they’re up to no good, they just want to feel that they have control over the social situation. Opponents of the Patriotic Act use the same rationale to speak out against it. Just because you’ve nothing to hide doesn’t mean it’s not a huge invasion of privacy. Teens desire a sense of agency and when parents snoop around or demand to have access to their children’s SNS profiles, they are denied that.
That’s not to say they shouldn’t be aware of what their children are up to. Obviously they have every right to be concerned about their children’s internet habits and should talk to them about it. When teenagers goes out with friends, it’s the parents’ responsibility to know where they are going and who they are going with. Parents should keep track of their kids, but that doesn’t mean parents should tag along and follow them around. The same goes for social network sites. Parents should have a sense of what their kids are doing on these sites, but not neccessarily feel the need to go through each and every interaction.