MySpace and Facebook: Keeping an Eye on Online Sites – November 2006

At the risk of dating myself, remember when phones were rotary, all mail was snail-mail, “blog” was a Scrabble word you tried to pass off as “obscure Gaelic,” and the web was that annoying thing that you swept out of the corners before your parents came to visit? Nowadays, even as cell phones, email, instant messaging and homepages have become modern-day “must haves,” it’s still possible for coaches to maintain a semi-Luddite-ish life.

But woe to the coach who doesn’t realize their student-athletes are anything but techno-phobic. For instance, ask a coach about “MySpace” or “Facebook” and you might get reactions ranging from blank looks to furious mutterings about “modern plagues.”

Ask your student-athletes and even money says they’ll say, “I’ve got one!”

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Here’s a quick primer: MySpace.com and Facebook.com are two of the best-known online social networking sites. Facebook primarily services college and university communities and is a high-tech, self-created version of those “incoming freshmen” pamphlets colleges used to hand out. MySpace identifies itself as a “place for friends,” and the majority of its users are sixteen-to-25-year-olds. About 25 percent of users are registered as minors (aged 14 to 17), but you’ll find people of all ages using both sites for all sorts of reasons.

Simply put, you join the site, create a personal profile, and get linked to other people’s profiles. “It’s the act of expanding the number of people you know by meeting your friends’ friends, their friends’ friends and their friends’ friends’ friends,” writes Julia Layton of HowStuffWorks.com. Both sites are wildly popular. How popular? According to its website, Facebook has more than 7.5 million registered members, with more than 2,200 colleges, 22,000 high schools and 2,000 companies supported. More than 65 percent of all college students are registered with Facebook, and it’s estimated that 70 percent of them use it every day. That, though, is small potatoes compared to the sixty-million plus people who have profiles on MySpace, a number that is growing exponentially: approximately 180,000 more register to use the site every day.

“It’s a very social community,” explains Chris Masters, Sports Information Director for University of Notre Dame’s women’s basketball. He describes the sites as the online equivalent of hanging out and talking with friends at the local coffeehouse. Additionally, because some profile formats allow participants to add personal information, photographs, design elements and written messages, the pages can be a form of self-expression. “It’s something along the lines of the way you decorate your dorm room. That’s your way of expressing who you are. [The profiles] may be a creative outlet. This is a way for people to vent and open up. It’s a creative outlet for them. Some people go and work out, some people shoot baskets, some people run. Other people get online and create a homepage and blog.”

WHEN THE PERSONAL GOES PUBLIC
So, what’s the problem? Well, like any new form of communication technology, there are unintended consequences. In the case of MySpace and Facebook, they’re centered on appropriateness and safety. Remember your “out there” friend’s wild dorm door? Or, perhaps the angst-filled and revelatory diary you hid under your bed as a teen? Or the kvetch sessions you had with your classmates about your least favorite teacher? Imagine if those words and images were now posted online, and you’ll begin to see the problem.

Currently, many users display a poor understanding of the difference between private and public space. While the sites have various “privacy” modes, often users ignore or bypass them, only to be shocked to find content they thought they were sharing with “close friends” is suddenly accessible to the entire online community.

Last year, that intersection of the public and private worlds became a painful learning moment for the head coach of an Ohio high school. She coach discovered a student used her MySpace to “pretty much vent her frustrations about not being happy with the coaching staff, playing time and actually used inappropriate language. [She] addressed me and my assistant coaches in a very improper, very inappropriate way. I was floored,” she added. “My mouth dropped open at the stuff that was written on there.”

“I didn’t know anything about these websites and what the kids were doing,” admitted the coach, who is also a full-time teacher at the school. “Some kids use it as fun, to send messages to their friends, and that type of thing. But when you’re going to use people’s names and foul language, it becomes a different matter. That’s not something I would tolerate for you to say to me.”

“The thing I said to the kid was, you may think those things, and you may actually even say them to somebody in private – obviously we can’t punish you for what you think or what you say to someone else. But when you write it out there for the whole world to see, then I see that as a challenge: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And I’m not sure if she did this thinking we wouldn’t see it, or thinking she didn’t care if we saw it. But she ended up being dismissed from the team as a result of it.”

Her advice to fellow coaches? “Be aware. Make your kids aware. Make your parents aware that it’s one thing to be unhappy. It’s another thing to put derogatory stuff on there about teammates, about coaches, about anybody that’s associated with the program. If you have a problem, we need to talk about it in a private meeting.” She explains to her parents that she has an open door policy and expects her athletes to take advantage. “You can’t fight all their battles for them. They need to grow up and learn responsibility. And I feel like that’s part of my job as a coach: to teach players and students to be responsible.”

LIFE AFTER HIGH SCHOOL AND BEYOND
Brian Robinson, coach of North Carolina’s Bishop McGuinness High School, got a “heads up” about the internet sites a couple of years ago when a former player related her job interview experience. “One of the questions she was asked,” explained Robinson, “was, ‘Do you have a Facebook page?’ She said ‘Yes.’ At the time, she didn’t know why the question was asked. Then to come find out that the people doing the interviews were trying to decide on a candidate’s character. Luckily, she had nothing detrimental on her Facebook. But a couple of people she was interviewing against had questionable things on their Facebook and thus they didn’t get the job she ended up getting.”

Aware that college coaches might do the same for recruitable athletes, Robinson began to look into the web pages of some of his high school players, finding some potentially inappropriate content in the process. “We started looking in to how to correct that. Our whole bottom line is, if you’re a 5’9″ kid and you’re about to get a scholarship somewhere and there’s another 5’9″ kid somewhere that has the same abilities that you do, and the same school’s recruiting you, it might come down to a character issue.”

“If they happen to go on to the MySpace site and see that you’ve done something – that there’s a picture on there that you shouldn’t have, or a phrase or a statement that you shouldn’t have, then obviously that college coach doesn’t want to have you around to babysit you the whole time. They want somebody that can be responsible about themselves. We’re just trying to be proactive for these children and parents. We don’t want them missing out on an opportunity that they may get, but may lose because of something like this.”

Becoming a high-profile program has also put his student-athletes under a higher level of scrutiny. “People are curious,” he acknowledged. “People are going to want to find out who you are, what you’re about and all this other stuff. You don’t want them to think a) you can’t write properly or b) put pictures up there about yourself and that’s not who you are. You’re just trying to be ‘cool’ to your friends who you think are just down the street. But you forget that ‘down the street’ is going to the other side of the country as well.”

Robinson is well aware of the double-edged sword that comes along with policing these sites. “I know a lot of these girls, they don’t want people in their business when they’re away from school. And yet they’ll put up a lot of stuff on their MySpace, and it’s just contradicting themselves. But again, it just comes down to the point of you wanting to be in the ‘in crowd,’ you wanting to be ‘cool.’ And sometimes it’s just not cool to be cool. It’s not cool when someone who could be controlling your future down the road says ‘We don’t want you because we happened to see something [online].'”

REPUTATION, REPUTATION, REPUTATION
Masters recognizes that at the college level, one of the biggest concerns about MySpace and Facebook centers on how an individual or a student-athlete represents that university. “You have to worry about something getting put up online that shouldn’t be there, i.e. photos of folks drinking, hazing, smoking, doing stuff that goes against the mission of the University as a whole.” Unfortunately, one need only scan the Internet to find numerous examples of just such actions at schools across the country:

* Two swimmers were kicked off their team for ridiculing their coach on a Facebook page.

* A university self-reported a secondary recruiting violation to the NCAA for MySpace messages posted by fans who begged a high school hoops star to attend the school.

* Members of a women’s soccer team posted an album showing partying and hazing of underclassmen. The photos ended up on several websites, including BadJocks.com. The university suspended the athletes and the coach resigned.

* A newspaper uncovered a Facebook group called “Hard Drinkers, Let’s Drink Hard,” started by a university football player. The site included photos and mentioned 28 players, 11 of whom were underage.

* A football player was suspended from a Bowl game for sending threatening messages to a Hispanic cross-country runner via their Facebook account.

* A university used video uploaded to a site to identify and prosecute students who stormed a field after a game.

There’s no doubt that college student-athletes have an elevated profile within a school – no matter what the national status of their athletic program. While they are no more at risk of doing something “foolish” than any other student, they’re more likely to be found out – either by media, scandal hungry websites, or rival fans.

In response to the discovery of “unacceptable” content found on these sites, administrators and coaches have reacted in diverse ways: Banning athletes from using the sites, demanding that the athletes “clean up” their pages, or modifying their codes of conduct to include an “proper use of internet posting sites” conditions, and even hiring staff to track down athlete’s pages. While questions of a school’s ability to control a student’s use of internet sites, not to mention basic First Amendment rights, swirl around these actions, it’s clear the simplest answer is to make sure coaches and staff are crystal clear on their policies and expectations and effectively communicate that information to their student-athletes.

“We tell kids, ‘Don’t put up anything you don’t want your folks to see,'” said Masters. “Certainly, we’re not going to restrict you from expressing yourself and being very independent – we encourage that kind of independence. That’s something that makes a good team and a good program.” But, he added, “Remember, you’re not only representing your family, you’re not only representing your home town, but you’re representing the University of Notre Dame, and that’s a tremendous responsibility. You basically signed a contract when you signed those scholarship papers and you’re agreeing to carry yourself as a role model in this community.”

Masters knows the students don’t need him to act as a surrogate parent, but he hopes they’ll speak with him before they post something on the web that might be “borderline.” “If you tell me or if you tell your coaches, it’s behind closed doors. If you talk to the online community on Facebook, you’re basically talking to the world and that door is not closed any more. You’re bringing other people into the equation, and that’s something you need to remind young people about – because sometimes they forget.”

CYBER-SAFETY, CYBER-STALKING, CYBER-FUTURE
While fears of online-predators can be over-hyped by the media for their own purposes, it would be foolish to deny the very real dangers that the Internet can present, especially considering the amount of personal information people offer up for consumption. For instance, an article in Carnegie Mellon’s student newspaper cited a 2005 report by professors Alessandro Acquisti of the Heinz School and Ralph Gross of the School of Computer Science entitled “Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networks”. “In our study of more than 4000 CMU users of Facebook,” wrote the professors, “we have quantified individuals’ willingness to provide large amounts of personal information in an online social network, and we have shown how unconcerned its users appear to privacy risks. Based on the information they provide online,” the report continued, “users expose themselves to various physical and cyber risks, and make it extremely easy for third parties to create digital dossiers of their behavior.”

These findings were echoed by Susan B. Barnes, professor in the Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in her article “A Privacy Paradox: Social Networking in the United States.” “On the Internet,” writes Barnes, “the illusion of privacy creates boundary problems. For example, in a television interview about Facebook, one of my students stated that she was concerned about revealing personal information online. When the reporter asked to see her Facebook page, the page contained her home address, phone numbers, and pictures of her young son. Without being aware of the dangers of online social sites, she had revealed too much personal information.”

Barnes also cites research showing close to 80 percent of parents and online teens said “that teens are not careful enough about giving out their personal information online.” Pointing to an analysis of weblogs (popular online journals), studies showed the types of personal information revealed included name, address, birth date, location, and numerous contacts, including e-mail addresses, instant messaging user names, and links to personal web pages. “Because teenage bloggers are revealing a considerable amount of personal information, as well as multiple ways to contact them online, the danger of cyberstalking and communicating with strangers online is a serious issue.”

“I fear something like that more than just about anything else,” admitted Masters. “You walk a very fine line as an SID – between wanting to give [the players] their space and allowing them the freedom to enjoy their college years because, as the old cliche goes, they’re supposed to be the best years of your life. But at the same time, sometimes you have to play the heavy. I’d rather have a player be pissed off at me forever for sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong and them being… let’s just be blunt, and them being alive. It’s a combination of myself, the coaching staff and the rest of the administration,” he continued. “If we’re all pulling our own weight in this fight, then I think we can impress upon our student-athletes the value of being extraordinarily cautious when it comes to stuff like this.” But Masters is concerned the issue isn’t being given enough attention. “I worry that something’s going to happen. I pray that it doesn’t happen to any of my players. But, obviously, I can only keep an eye on the twelve players that are on our roster this year. I can’t keep an eye on the other 750 plus student-athletes that attend the University of Notre Dame, and I certainly can’t keep an eye on the other thousands of women’s basketball athletes around the country.”

“You don’t want the game of basketball and the sport of women’s basketball to become this dangerous arena,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a great activity, a great entertainment value. It’s supposed to be something that’s enjoyable. You want them to have this great utopian ideal of basketball and college athletics and college life. If something bad were to happen, it would totally shatter that ideal, and we’d never be able to get it back.”

Yet, even in the face of his concern, Masters sees an inherent irony. “It’s a difficult battle because we’re still a very young and growing sport. We’re basically spitting in the face of the machine that’s going to try and grow the sport even more. There’s a new generation of fans out there that are waiting to be reached. And the best way to reach them is going to be through this technology. In the very near future there’s going to be this convergence of media between radio, TV, Internet and cell phones. You’re going to get it all just coming together in this great broadband spectrum. And obviously Facebook is right there at the heart of it.”

“Right now, we’re playing catch up,” he concluded. “We’re doing all these great things with technology, but you know what? It’s opening more and more doors to predators and to more danger. You can make it work to your advantage if you play your cards right. But, the question is, can you get your players on the same page and to buy into that positive message of Facebook as opposed to bringing this negative, dangerous message.”

Resources for Coaches, Athletic Directors and Parents:
“A Privacy Paradox: Social Networking in the United States” by Susan B. Barnes, Department of Communication at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

“Alarms sound over athletes’ Facebook time,” by Erik Brady and Daniel Libit, USA Today.

“Facebook filled with interest and ignorance,” by Andrew Peters, Carnegie Mellon, The Tartan.

“Crude Web profiles put heat on athletes,” by Joanne C. Gerstner, The Detroit News.

“Personal Web pages can lead to online fouls,” by Rob Biertempfel, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“MySpace or OurSpace?” by Alex Koppelman, Salon.com.

“MySpace Is Public Space When It Comes To Job Search,” by CollegeGrad.com

“The Wired Child: Parents are the Ultimate Connection” by Jean Sheff, Parenthood Magazine.

Websites:
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children offers parents advice for detecting whether their child is engaging in appropriate behavior

GetNetWise.Org

Safekids.com

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