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Friday, January 25, 2008

'Growing Up Online': Discussion needed!

It's the best piece of journalism I've seen about the online experiences of youth in 10 years of following this subject. It's actually representative of teens' use of the Net and the research we now have on it. If you haven't seen it, consider watching PBS Frontline's one-hour documentary "Growing Up Online" (it can be viewed online at your convenience here). I have a few soundbytes in it, but I'm recommending it not for self-promotion (when I did the interview with Frontline last July, I had no idea how it would be used for a program to air six months later), but because it advances a vital discussion in American society - how teens can use the social Web to their benefit, not their harm. Parents can't really help them with that until we begin to understand how they're using this technology, and Frontline's treatment actually helps.

Some of the experiences the documentary portrays are extreme - particularly Ryan Halligan's suicide and his father's moving account of piecing together how it happened - and others are just challenging, but they challenge the public in an intelligent way. The stories also illustrate a lot that is normal about adolescence, online and off, and what kids' online lives reveal, certainly more publicly than ever, about adolescence as it always has been (maybe we need to ask ourselves what part of what we're seeing in social sites is new).

All the stories have something to teach us. The story of Jessica/"Autumn Edows" has a great deal to say about adolescents' exploration of identity online and how it affects their development to good or bad effect. I would love to ask a psychologist about Jessica's exploration of an entirely different kind of life by having an online persona completely different from her "real world" one. Certainly many adults would find Autumn's photos shocking for a 14-year-old girl, but if they thoughtfully compared hers to the equally risqué snapshots of her peers all over the social Web, they'd see something quite different going on - but distinctions can be made only thoughtfully, once we get past the shock of seeing teenage life more exposed to the public, including to us parents, than it has ever been. As hard as it was for Jessica and her parents, it could be argued that her experience was healthy, maybe necessary for her, although - if this were a different, more reckless or self-destructive child and because her experiment was so public - her experience could've been dangerous.

Jessica's story, thankfully, had a positive ending. So did that of Sara, who told her parents about her secret anorexia and got help after her interview with Frontline. The "ending" of the story of Evan Skinner and her four teenage children in small-town Chatham, N.J., was mixed. We meet a loving, well-informed mother who maybe overreacted a little to scary news-media hype about social networking and, out of a sense of duty to her community, put her son in a very difficult position at school, which temporarily hurt their relationship. We don't know how they're working it out - thank goodness for them we don't - but we are fortunate to be exposed to the questions both generations in that story raise: What are a teenage child's privacy rights and needs (online and off)? How "in their face" should parents get in order to protect their kids, and how risky is their Internet experience anyway? How can a parent tell how risky it is? How activist in a child's school community should a parent be about student online activities in which her child is involved - how does it affect the child? At one point Evan, the mother, tells Frontline that when her son is social networking he's "edgy." She seems to view social networking as causative, when she might consider that it's the socializing, not the framework for it, that causes the edginess. Or maybe having Mom constantly breaking in on his online conversations - in the kitchen, where she requires him to be when he's online - is what makes him edgy. Small questions to us, maybe, but not so small to teens.

No clear answer to any of these questions is put forth in this documentary. There isn't one. A single solution - a sort of "pill" for teens' online safety - would be like a pill for risk-free adolescence. The answers and solutions change with each child and family and change as each child matures. And pediatricians tell us we can't and shouldn't try to remove all risk from their lives, since the risk assessment is how they develop their prefrontal cortexes, the impulse-control, "executive" part of their brains that isn't fully developed until their early 20s.

The program has a few gratuitous dramatic elements - the music, the almost cliche sonorous narrator's voice. But the stories it tells are representative of the complex challenge, and the questions it raises are essential to a progressive public discussion that moves from fear to rational thought and folds in all the forms of expertise we've always called upon for healthy adolescent development - not just that of law enforcement, the Internet industry, and online-safety advocacy, but also the expertise of parents, educators, child psychologists, researchers, social workers, and teens themselves.

Come to our online forum at to talk about these issues and tell your friends, your kids, and their friends to come too. Let's keep the discussion going!

Related links

  • Of the show, Totally Wired author Anastasia Goodstein writes, "What I felt was missing from the documentary were the teens who are close to their parents and share pieces of their online lives with them, whether it’s what they write on their blog or even playing a video game together.... I also wanted to see some positive examples of how teens are using the internet to create social change, show off their creativity or launch their own businesses...." I agree. Frontline should turn this into a series!

  • In the show, there's also the thought-provoking part of the chapter about how teens' technology and online lives spill over into school. Tech educator Doug Johnson in Minnesota has a thoughtful post about this in his blog: "Engage or entertain?"

  • Columnist Joanne Weintraub's review of the program in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

  • "'Growing Up Online' and still bored" at Mother Jones.

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  • Teen-distributed child porn in Pa.

    One student at Parkland High School in the Allentown, Pa., area started a group on Facebook called "Parkland ... Where Pornstars Are Born." He's referring to two photos taken two months ago - one a naked photo of a girl taken by the girl herself and the other of another girl engaged in a sex act with a boy taken by someone else - that circulated around the school via cellphone, the Associated Press reports. "Authorities began investigating about two weeks ago after some students notified school administrators," the AP adds. It says a district attorney said that at least 40 students believed to have received the photos on their phones won't be prosecuted. Police have been trying to stop their circulation, but students the AP interviewed said the distribution has gone well beyond Allentown - "to Temple and Harvard universities, to a high school in Bethlehem, even to someone in Oregon." I doubt the girl who took the self-portrait knew the distribution of her photo (or that of the other girl) was potentially a federal felony. "About 3,200 students are enrolled at Parkland, a perennial football powerhouse that draws students from three largely wealthy townships outside Allentown." Here's coverage from the Allentown Morning Call and here's a letter from Parkland High School to parents.

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    Net causative in UK teen suicides?

    "At least seven" teenagers in Bridgend, South Wales, have committed suicide recently, the Times of London reported this week, calling them "copycat suicides" and linking them to the teens' social networking. The Guardian, however, reported that both the coroner and police in South Wales "downplayed suggestions that they were investigating an internet 'suicide chain'" as reported in "the tabloids." They said they've taken one of the deceased girls' computer to "build up a picture of what happened" rather than investigate any particular Web site. The coroner, who told The Guardian that "the number of suicides in the area had been increasing 'year on year' over the past three years, also said social-networking sites are "global, so why would they cause an issue in Bridgend in particular?" The Net may've had a role but not a causative one, the Times suggests in its article - maybe a role more like that of traditional media. It cites University of Bristol professor David Gunnell as saying that "research had shown a connection between reports of suicide in the media and copycat deaths, and it was likely that discussions of suicide on websites would have a similar effect."

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    Thursday, January 24, 2008

    Grownups' encroachment

    Young people are increasingly uneasy about how much adults are moving in on their "technological turf," the Associated Press reports. "Long gone are the days when the average, middle-aged adult did well to simply work a computer. Now those same adults have Gmail, upload videos on YouTube, and sport the latest high-tech gadgets." The story makes it look like a conscious thing on the part of teens to stay a step ahead with the latest technologies. A big problem for teens, the AP suggests, is that their social-networking profiles necessarily have to become a "watered down version" of their online selves. If widespread, this is a sign that this latest teen "hangout" - something that all teens need, a space away from adult observation - may need to be replaced with a new one. Who knows what that will be? If you have guesses, pls comment below or in our forum over at

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    Wednesday, January 23, 2008

    Xbox Live hacks

    It's a security heads-up for users of Microsoft's gaming community Xbox Live (and a good story). Well-known, obviously highly skilled gamer "Colin Fogle gained widespread acclaim in gaming circles after posting a video showing how it was possible for a Halo 3 player to shoot and kill himself with his own sniper rifle," The Register reports. For that feat, the game's makers gave him (or his game character, rather) a special piece of virtual armor, after which his Xbox Live account was stolen three times. According to The Register, "he was suddenly logged out [and] when he tried to log back in, he got error messages saying his password didn't match his user name." The problem, here, is the hijackers can in this way obtain not only the special piece of virtual armor, but also credit card numbers, address, and info used to log into other Microsoft-type accounts (e.g., Hotmail, IM). What the hackers frequently do, The Register adds, is call the toll-free number and pretend to be the account's owner, providing the Xbox Live ID and ask for one bit of info (e.g., address), then call back later and ask for more (e.g., phone number) until they have enough info on the person "to convince a support person they are the rightful owners of the account." Be careful out there, gamers.

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    The MySpace experiment

    Parents and teens aren't the only ones dealing with MySpace's image. Advertisers and MySpace itself are too. Last week the big story was MySpace as a corporate citizen. This week, a snapshot of where MySpace is as a business too - somewhere between "the chaos that is comfortable to many MySpace residents and the neatness that appeals to consumer product companies [advertisers]," as the New York Times put it. Just as in the corporate citizenship space, where MySpace has to strike a balance between keeping youth safe and sending them all to another site in the US or overseas without the safety precautions MySpace does have in place, so it juggles the "chaos" of customization that users love and advertisers hate (or that scares advertisers seeking association with a squeaky clean or at least predictable ad environment). The story illustrates the multidisciplinary challenge of a medium largely produced by its users. By multiple "disciplines," I mean parenting, marketing, copyright law, law enforcement, education, constitutional law, and so on. Advertisers and parents used to be able to count on media that the media companies, the content producers - not the consumers - controlled. Now the medium for advertisers' messages and parents' young content producers and socializers is a mix, some of it "professional content" owned and controlled (somewhat) by the media companies but most of it owned and produced by its own consumers (even the professional content gets sliced, diced, mixed, and mashed up by the Web's young producers). And the experiment grows, as MySpace moves from being a social site and a record label to being an incubator for Web startups. For details, check out this latest snapshot of a very complex picture at the Times.

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    Tuesday, January 22, 2008

    Game worlds: Growth economy

    The virtual economy is strengthening - for gamers, anyway. This is a business story, but of interest to us parents because it offers indicators of where the industry's going. Electronic Arts will soon be offering the next version of its popular Battlefield Heroes game for free, the New York Times reports. You heard right - it will be downloadable for free. EA will make its money on advertising and in-game sales of virtual gear - weapons, clothing, etc. This is not a big leap of faith, of course. EA tested the approach in South Korea, "the world’s most fervent gaming culture," according to the Times, which adds that "in 2006, the company introduced a free version of its FIFA soccer game there ... [and] signed up more than 5 million Korean users," generating more than $1 million a month in virtual-objects sales. [See also "Virtual money, real income" and "Converting virtual cash to real."]

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    FBI agent's practical advice

    The headline on this interview in the Houston Chronicle states the obvious, but its subject - FBI Agent Randall Clark of the Houston Area Cyber Crimes Task Force - does not. This online-safety expert is clearly basing his message on reality, not fears. He says things borne out in the research of people like Dr. Finkelhor (see above): "The first thing that [parents] need to know (is) what the real threat is. A lot of parents think if their child's profile is online that someone will come in and attack them. The predator will go through the grooming process first," and if our kids know not to respond (and most online kids do), there can be no grooming process (see "How to recognize grooming"). Always ask your child first what he's up to online. [News-media generalizations work less and less because a child's social-Web experience is what she makes of it; it's a reflection of her and her social life - very individual.] If your child's evasive or secretive about who he's talking with online, there could be a problem, and you need to get more involved. "Parents need to understand that their child might be actively trying to deceive them. One of the things I actively advocate is that you have got to keep an eye on your child online. You can't let them have their computer in their room. You have to check up on them. You have to visit the sites they visit." If you have the sense that she's being manipulated or influenced by someone she doesn't know in "real life" and who may be an adult, it might be good to call your local police and the CyberTipline at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children ( or 800.THE.LOST). But when the Chronicle asked Agent Clark if young people should be banned from social sites, he said, "I don't think so. Social networking sites are not evil. Just like anything else, they can be misused."

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    Monday, January 21, 2008

    'TMI' online

    Too Much Information online is becoming a widespread, cross-generation social dilemma, not just a teen online-safety issue (in fact, giving out personal information in itself isn't the safety risk we all used to think it was - see this). For example, your teenaged child just reported details of last night's parent-child argument in her blog; a friend posts a comment in his profile about your mutual past that you don't really want your students or current employer to see; you just mortified your college-age child by calling and mentioning that you noticed in her Facebook profile that "she joined an online discussion group called 'Heavy Drinking''; or "remember that day you called in sick? Your friend just posted pictures of you at the beach that day. Your boss got the story." Some of the above are from a highly readable, slightly unnerving USATODAY piece on TMI. The good news is, both MySpace and Facebook - which together represent nearly 90% of US social networking - are about to add tools that will allow users to keep the online versions of their personal and professional lives separate.

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    Growth in sex-addiction cases

    In doing some investigative reporting, the BBC recently surveyed 43 sex and relationship therapists and found that almost 80% of them are "seeing an increase in the number of men suffering from sex addiction," it reports, and 74% said "it was becoming increasingly common to see excessive use of Internet pornography as a problem in relationships." Over in the US, a study in this month's issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research found that US "college students, including young women, are far more accepting of pornography than their parents," USATODAY reports. "Most young women in the study said they personally did not use porn, but nearly half said viewing X-rated material was an acceptable way to express sexuality. Only 37% of the fathers and 20% of the mothers surveyed agreed." According to the study 86% of the young men surveyed reported having viewed porn in the past year (compared to 31% of young women), and 20% said they viewed it every day or nearly every day (compared to 3.2% of young women).

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