Myspace.com is their space for Island teens
There comes a stage in the lives of most teenagers when their parents are a public embarrassment, adults are a distrusted life-form, and they retreat into the company of their peers. For parents, extracting information about the life of an adolescent child can sometimes be so frustratingly difficult that it's tempting to dig under the mattress for that secret diary.
This basic dynamic of adolescence hasn't changed for generations, but lately, technology has been transforming the ways Island teenagers share their lives with each other. And curious parents have a whole new window into their children's world. Because what was once the secret diary isn't under the bed anymore - it's been posted on the Internet.
H. of Vineyard Haven identifies herself as 18. Her comment under this picture reads: "Stupid Drunk: I forgot about sunblock between my 1st and 5th beer."
Myspace.com, a website with more than 56 million members, bills itself as "an online community that lets you meet your friends' friends." Signing up with the site is easy and free, and gives you access to search for members using many criteria.
A recent search for Myspace members from the Martha 's Vineyard Regional High School yielded a list of 51 current students and 199 alumni. But in fact, students who were interviewed for this story said that the site is immensely popular. Perhaps two-thirds of all students at the high school have their own pages, but many don't list the school. A geographic search of Myspace confirms this: Asking for members 18 to 20 years old and within 10 miles of zip code 02557 yields a list of 787 people.
Girls appear to outnumber boys two or three to one on Myspace. Girls also are more apt to show themselves off physically.
Each Myspace member gets to pick a screen name, although many teens use their real first names for posting. When you do a search, the result is a screen full of thumbnail pictures, most of them in the style that The New York Times recently described as "a kind of folk art for the digital age" -- with the digicam held at arm's length and turned back in self-portrait. If you're an Island parent with an Internet connection and your child has a page on Myspace, you can probably find it in less than half an hour.
N. of Oak Bluffs gives her age as 17 and says she is a member of class of 2007. She posts no caption under this soft focus picture of herself in her underwear, but writes on her profile page, "I'm addicted to Myspace so send me comments because they make my day brighter."
What you discover might surprise you.
It's not news that Island adolescents are intensely social animals, sometimes moody and deeply self-involved, often fascinated with their emerging sexuality. But the degree of candor with which some teens publicly explore their darkest doubts and document their wildest celebrations might come as a shock.
On her Myspace page, F. of Oak Bluffs (her full name, like those of others mentioned below, is clearly stated on the web page, but is being withheld here) gives her age as 18 but her birthdate as May 14, 1990 - this dis
crepancy is common on the site, in part because Myspace has been working hard to bar access to children under 14. She answers yes to the survey question, "In the past month have you been drunk?" and she posts a picture of herself in tight slacks, taken from behind and exuberantly captioned, "there's me and my bootay!"
But F. isn't always so happy. Here's her blog entry from the night of Feb. 11:
"this will be the second weekend i havent done ANYTHING and im pretty much ready to commit suicide....i COULDVE snuck out tonight ... and gotten drunk like i should have been doing......but it wasnt possible. my mom had some friend over tonight they are in the kitchen AS WE SPEAK drinking and talking and they dont show any sign of slowing down any time soon...so if i DID wanna leave which i did change my mind and decided i wanted to but now its just not possible and .... im an unhappy camper!! dahhhhhhh and now my moms being more of a bitch than before....UGGHHHH i hate this. Dah "i just need to get drunk."
J. of West Tisbury, a member of the class of 2007 at the regional high school, gives her date of birth as August 8, 1989, and is happy to share personal information in the "tell me about yourself" survey on her Myspace profile page. Ever been drunk? "of course." Have you been on drugs in the last month? "nothing except marijuana." Your weakness? "sex."
D. gives her age as 18 and current address as California. She says she works summers lifeguarding at South Beach, and posts a long essay that begins, "You Know You're From Martha's Vineyard When..."
K. of Edgartown poses with three bottles of beer.
Essay items include: "You know that smoking weed is just part of the island tradition. You've been to at least 5 beach parties in the last year and 4 of them have been broken up by the cops."
B. of Chilmark gives her age as 17, and posts soft-focus self-portraits taken with a webcam. She says her heritage is Irish, Italian, Polish and Lithuanian, and reveals a self-consciousness about her height in response to a survey question, responding: "O god, 5'10 or near it." And she writes: "My type of guy: I like guys of all colors and races, yet I PREFER dark or tan at least ... fit (muscular is nice hehe), preferably near my height or taller cuz I'm tall ... and a gangster/thug or at least casual CUZ I DUN LIKE PREPS AT ALL!!!"
But when a visitor goes to read B.'s Myspace blog entries, the screen delivers this message: "This specific blog entry you're trying to read is currently set to be viewable to the blog owner friends only."
N. of Oak Bluffs, a member of the class of 2007 at the regional high school, writes: "I'm addicted to Myspace so send me comments because they make my day brighter." Her blog entries describe weekend parties at friends' houses and the acquisition of her new Texas Instruments calculator. And she posts a fuzzy cell-phone portrait of herself, posing in her underwear.
In fact, the invention of cellular phones with built-in cameras has spawned a whole new category of images from unexpected places. Myspace member Dorkus of West Tisbury - a member whose real name isn't obvious from his page - has posted a picture of three classmates at the urinals in a men's room at the regional high school.
D. at left, gives her current address as California but says she works as a lifeguard at a Vineyard beach in the summer. Her caption for this picture: "Look at those SeXy BeAsTs!!"
A parent browsing through the Myspace profiles of Vineyard teenagers will find nothing rated R, but plenty that might rate a PG-13. H. of Vineyard Haven, age 18, posts a photograph of herself dated August 26, 2005. She's badly sunburnt, smiling for the camera, and has released the straps of her pink bikini top. Her caption reads: "Stupid Drunk: I forgot about sunblock between my 1st and 5th beer."
T. of West Tisbury, age 17, describes himself as gay and posts a picture of himself at a Halloween party, explaining his costume with this caption: "Hardcore army man with little gay wings."
Myspace users have also developed their own form of shorthand and appear to have no inhibitions referencing drinking or drug use. K. gives her age as 16, residence Edgartown, and poses in a tight sweater and short skirt. The following appears on her profile page: "Waddd Upp my name is K. i live on MV...im 16. I like to smoke weed. Im sick at beer pong [a drinking game] so if u wanna challange me and kelley we are down! I have a sister named jessi shes a freshman, shes good [expletive]. Well idk [I don't know] you can ask if u wanna no more."
It's easy to come away from an hour on Myspace with the impression that some Island teens are using the Internet not wisely, but too well. And the national press has landed hard, in recent months, on the rare instances when a young person's injudicious online revelations have actually gotten her in trouble. There was a case in Portsmouth, N.Y., last fall in which a 16-year-old girl posted rather too much information about herself on Myspace, and was assaulted by a 37-year-old man as she left her part-time job at a shopping mall. That attack was picked up and used as a hook for alarming feature stories by newspapers from USA Today and Business Week to the L.A. Times and Miami Herald.
Certainly the notion that Vineyard children are laying themselves open to cyber-predators is alarming, but the danger needs to be put into perspective. According to news reports, perhaps three people per month are being charged in the United States with assaults related to information they gleaned about their victims online. Even if the problem is actually ten times greater than that, Island children are still far more at risk of injury - by a factor of more than a hundred - from riding in automobiles than from indiscretions on Myspace.
Partly because of the recent national hoopla over young people and their freewheeling use of the Internet, some of the best information on how to use the web safely is posted prominently on the Myspace site.
Click the Safety link on any Myspace page and you'll find a discussion of basic Internet safety issues. It's filled with advice that's sensible and clear: Never post information publicly that identifies you personally. Remember that people you meet online might not be what they claim to be. Always keep your password a secret. And if someone is bothering you on Myspace, the site provides an easy way to block him or her so they can't message you again.
Myspace even has a page entitled "Tips for Parents," written by the Internet safety guru Perry Aftab. Mr. Aftab runs a website at wiredsafety.org, which he describes as the world's largest online safety and help group, and he's frequently quoted in news stories on Internet safety. Mr. Aftab writes:
"While MySpace.com is doing its best to keep your children from using their website and lying about their age, it's up to parents to do their job, too. Parents need to talk with their children about not sharing personal information online. Personal information includes pictures, names and addresses, schools they attend, cell and phone numbers and many other less obvious things, such as the name of their school team, ethnic background and even a mall near your house."
He concludes: "Just remember that while your kids may know more than you do about technology, you know more about life. And you are allowed to set the rules and enforce them. You're still the parent!"
Nis Kildegaard is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Edgartown.