Teen dating websites: A good idea?

News about Skout.com being used by online predators to lure underage youth has been all over the place lately. Luckily, many experts such as danah boyd, David Finkelor any Larry Magid are chiming in on this issue with their less-panicky perspectives on what is happening concerning youth exploring online, interacting with others, and staying safe. One quote, by Finkelhor, seems to be making the cut in most of the news items I have read:

“If someone wants to help teens do online dating, it needs to be carefully thought out with a lot of education, cautions, abuse detection mechanisms and quality controls.”

Is it just me that’s all excited about this possibility? I mean, really, could we actually develop a SMART teen dating website? One that has the usual online dating stuff, but also includes material about healthy relationships, some educational stuff, and a whole lot of acceptance? I am giddy at the mere thought of it.

I am also realistic, however, and do realize it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen — issues related to age of consent/statutory rape, privacy concerns, bullying, sexting. But I can’t help but imagine a time where such a site could happen, be used responsibly and successfully. How far off into the future is it?

Isolating Our Youth

I wanted to reflect on danah boyd’s opening paragraph in her commentary on internet safety in the Boston Daily:

…” four generations of parents have slowly eliminated children’s freedom to roam in physical spaces. In turn, children and teens have turned to the Internet to reclaim social opportunities they’ve lost. In interviewing teens, I consistently find that they would prefer to get together in-person, but that parental fears, over-scheduling, and lack of viable transportation often make offline socialization difficult, if not altogether impossible. For many young people, social media fills this gap, and allows them to ‘hang out.'”

This is horrifying to me. As boyd articulates, this idea is nothing new. Joel Best in his book Threatened Children, discusses similar issues in the over-sensationalization of kidnapped children and how that spreads fear among parents. Are we really shutting our youth away from social experiences in the name of their safety? What long-term impact will that have on their relationships, sense of self, and confidence as they venture out into the world?

What I find somewhat ironic is that while we are simultaneously trying to “protect” our children from the big, bad, world, we are also dismayed by the amount of time they spend in front of media — especially television and video games — and how this contributes to an increase in obesity. Adults also bemoan the amount of disclosure and maltreatment that happens in social media (though boyd in her commentary tries to debunk some of that).

We can’t have it both ways. Either we need to trust young people to frequent social spaces in the physical world, or we need to allow them more freedom in the digital world. Or, ideally, both. Learning to trust young people and allow them to make healthy decisions is, in my opinion, the best thing we can do to support them in both the short- and long-term. As USC Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts  Henry Jenkins has stated:

“Kids don’t need us watching over their shoulders; they need us to have their backs.”

What would have happened if?

This New York Times article highlights the life and work of danah boyd, self-proclaimed “social media scholar, youth researcher & advocate.” What I like about this article is how boyd shares some of her personal experiences and how those tie into her work and philosophy — that youth going online is not only not necessarily dangerous, but can even be helpful. It can promote political awareness and advocacy. It can reduce isolation. It can save a life. In the article, boyd states that “At the age of 16, I thought I’d be dead by 21,” she said. “I lost 13 classmates to drug overdoses, suicides, accidents and a murder…The Internet was my saving grace. I would spend my teenage nights talking to strangers online, realizing there were other smart kids out there.”

To some extent, her story sounds exactly like the ones adults are terrified by — talking to strangers online in times of pain and trouble. But, for whatever reasons, boyd came out the better after reaching out to an online community.

I am around 10 years older than boyd, so did not grow up with an online world. However, she and I do share some similar experiences in terms of having a troubled adolescence. I wonder if I would have benefited from reaching out to others online, or if I would have been more representative of the general research which states that troubled youth are more likely to develop close online relationships and put themselves in danger as a result. Clearly, I will never know. But I do wish I had options to reach out to others when I was hurting most.