The story behind the story

By now, many of you have heard about the tragedy regarding Amanda Todd, the teen who took her life after severe cyberbulling. Her video, posted on this article about her, gives her own account of what happened, just days before she took her own life. I encourage you to watch it and “listen” to her story unfold.

What I believe may happen is a flurry of stories much like the one I posted above: the stories that talk about all the evils of the internet and how it is a dangerous place. What happened to Todd is horrible, but I want to highlight the two things that I hope are stressed and the ones I hope that are NOT brought to the front:

1. Media people — please see that this young woman was groomed by online chatters. It took her a year before she took off her top. What was shaping her life during that time? Who was (and wasn’t) in her life? Don’t just focus on the fact that she fell prey to an online stranger. Take a deeper look into how her situation was the result of a slow progression.

2. All of us — especially youth — why did you follow her from place to place? It was bad enough to bully her, but she moved several times to get away from it all. What, inside of you, possessed you to keep harassing and stalking her after she had left? This lack of humanity frightens me.

Things I don’t want focused on:

a. People figured out who she was. Yes, somehow, she was identified. But please don’t make this a scare-tactic story about stranger danger.

b. What she did was illegal. While it’s true that she could have been guilty of creating child pornography, I hope that the focus is on all the harm the other people did.

What’s going to happen now? Unclear. But I hope her story can be used to create dialogue about what can happen when harassment goes too far. There needs to be more forgiveness and understanding taught here. The basic lessons of being a good person.

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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?

The Law is Still Catching Predators — Just Not on TV

A new report finds that more people are being arrested for sexually soliciting youth online than they were six years ago. However, this is mostly due to “sting” operations, where the number of arrests for soliciting undercover investigators who posed as juveniles increased almost 500%. In contrast, arrests for solicitation of actual children increased 21% from 2000-2006. Although it should be alarming that those crimes involving actual children are increasing, it is important to remember that internet use overall during this time has increased much more than 21%. So, proportionally, these solicitations are on the decline.

According to the report, arrests of online predators comprised only 1% of all sex crimes against minors. By far, the vast majority of sex crimes against minors are within the family or local community — not by online strangers. On a similar note, the report also noted that there is little to no evidence that minors were being “lured” by adults or found by predators based on personal information they post. Instead, youths were the ones reaching out to people whom they knew to be adults and seeking relationships with them. Unfortunately, some of these adults take advantage of such situations.

Bottom line is that online predation remains a rare occurrence. Minors are more often abused by someone close to them (either a family or local community member), and when they are sexually involved with someone online, it is someone whom they already know to be an adult, and actively have formed a relationship with.

Fear-based Spin

Although I have an earlier blog post about the Internet Safety Technical Task Force report, I came across an article that I must vent over.

To recap, the ISTTF report was published as an official statement of the Task Force regarding their opinions and recommendations regarding online safety for minors, and how to approach this issue going forward. Their main points were (see pages 4 & 5 of the Executive Summary):
1. The use of the internet by adults to abduct minors is very rare. Adult predation cases that incorporated the internet typically involved “post-pubescent youth who were aware that they were meeting an adult male for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity.” Random abduction is essentially unheard of.
2. “Bullying and harassment, most often by peers, are the most frequent threats that minors
face, both online and offline.” In other words, researchers, policy makers, and other concerned adults should focus on bullying, not predators, when striving to improve online safety.
3. “The Internet increases the availability of harmful, problematic and illegal content, but does
not always increase minors’ exposure.”

So, imagine my dismay when I see an article whose headline reads: “Study Proves American Teens are at Serious Risk.” This article cries: “Abuse, bullying, hatred and pornography crowd the internet; and no where are they more prevalent, or more dangerous, than on sites geared towards teens.” Huh? Did I miss something here?

Unfortunately, I did not. For this is no article, but a press release disguised as news written to promote an online safety service. Too bad the author of the release didn’t see the Task Force recommendation that the Attorneys General NOT “endorse any one technology or set of technologies to protect minors online.” (p. 6).

Hopefully parents and other adults will notice and act accordingly.

Internet Safety Technical Task Force Carries a Strong Message

It takes great news like this to awaken me from my holiday slumber. The Internet Safety Technical Task Force is releasing their report which concludes that ““actual threats that youth [online] may face appear to be different than the threats most people imagine.” The New York Times headline reads: Report Calls Online Threats to Children Overblown.

I feel both happy and vindicated. Happy, because this is an accurate assessment of the experiences of youth online. Vindicated because I set up this blog and have been making presentations with this message for several years now.

Larry Magid, who served on the Task Force, summed it up beautifully by saying: “While the task force found that youth risk from predators is a concern, the overwhelming majority of youth are not in danger of being harmed by an adult predator they meet online.”

Instead, according to the Task Force report, the focus of our online safety efforts should lean towards better understanding — and preventing — cyberbullying.

Cornfed Citizen Safety

i work on the webImage by glsims99 via FlickrDr. Kris pointed me in the direction of Net Safe Kansas, a new website based in Kansas looking to protect their state’s Internet users. Maybe it’s a Kansas thing, but apparently Internet users there are ridiculously uneducated and can’t do research for themselves. On top of that, the website creators believe that their oh-so-exiting website will draw children in to read all of their rules. I was bored … what 12-year-old is going to stick around to read these things? (My comments on these “rules” are in italics.)

• Don’t believe everything you read online, especially from someone in a chat room. It’s extremely easy to lie online and predators will tell you anything to gain your trust. For example the “14-year-old girl” you just met online might actually be a 40-year-old man trying to gain your trust. Or the “14-year-old girl” you just met online might actually be a 160-year-old boy from your neighboring high school fulfilling a dare from his friends.

• Choose a random user name or screen name. Make sure it doesn’t reveal your name, age, school, location or interests. For example, the user name “CutieCougar94″ might reveal to a predator that this person is likely female, a student at a school with a Cougar mascot and born in 1994.” Or people of my generation will think that you’re a cute older woman looking for a younger man and that you quite possibly graduated in 1994.

• Don’t respond to messages that are mean or in any way make you feel uncomfortable. It is not your fault if you receive a message like this. Tell your parents right away so they can contact the online service provider. Messages that come to me that make me uncomfortable aren’t always illegal … if it’s not illegal, the online service provider can’t do anything anyway.

• Stick with friends. It’s always safer to chat with friends you know in real life. Strangers online are bad news. I was 22, online talking to strangers and met my best friend. Strangers online aren’t always bad news. You can safely meet some incredible people online.

Then they have a “NetSafe Kids Pledge” that made me laugh … and then I felt kinda bad for laughing at the ridiculousness of it … for about 37 seconds.

NetSafe Kids Pledge

1. I will turn off my computer monitor right away and tell a trusted adult if anything makes me feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. There are TONS of things on the internet that confuse me. If I turned off the monitor every time that happened, I’d never learn anything. (I do understand what they’re getting at, though.)

2. I will tell my parents or guardian if anyone online asks me my name, my address, my telephone number, or the name and location of my school. Or I could just tell them no or ignore them or block them.

3. I will never share personal information such as my address, my telephone number, my parents’ or guardian’s work address/telephone number, or the name and location of my school without my parents’ or guardian’s permission. Why would a teenager share their parent’s work number with a stranger online?

4. I will tell my parents or guardian if anyone online asks to meet me in person.

5. I will never meet in person with anyone I have first “met” online without checking with my parents or guardian. If my parents or guardian agrees to the meeting, it will be in a public place and my parents or guardian must come along.

6. I will talk with my parents or guardian so that we can set up rules for going online. The rules will include the time of day I may be online, the length of time I may be online, whom I may communicate with while online, and appropriate areas for me to visit while online. I will not break these rules or access other areas without their permission. Seriously? I was a good kid growing up. Straight-A student, top of the class, blah blah blah, and I wouldn’t have set up rules like this with my parents. Do you know any teenager that has?

7. I will tell a trusted adult if I come across anything that makes me feel scared, uncomfortable, or confused. I will not download anything from anyone without permission from my parents or guardian. Stay away from Wikipedia.

8. I will not use rude or mean language on the Internet. *bites her tongue so she doesn’t say something inappropriate*

9. I will never respond to any messages that are mean or in any way make me feel uncomfortable. If I do get a message like that, I will tell a trusted adult right away so that he or she can contact the online service.

10. I will always remember that people online may not be who they seem. Because I can’t see or even hear the person it would be easy for someone to misrepresent himself or herself. For example, someone indicating that “she” is a “12-year-old-girl” could in reality be an older man. Hello stereotypes.

So, it seems that NetSafe Kansas has a good idea … but it almost feels patronizing to go through their website. I am pretty sure that there are Kansan citizens who KNOW better than the website assumes. Also, the fact that their kids & teens pages are still geared towards adults doesn’t make it any more marketable. The bare bones of it might one day be improved, but spreading more “stereotypical” internet information doesn’t help anyone.

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Frivolous electrical conversation

irdImage via WikipediaI truly believe that most teens know what they’re doing when they begin playing online. They don’t get into a chat room, end up on a pornographic site, or visit with strangers without knowing they’ve done it. However, the media explosion of shows like To Catch A Predator and news headlines reading “Man has sex with girl he met on MySpace” has made it seem as though teens use the internet without knowing what they could get into. After 23 pages of “High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online” (authors Justine Cassell & Meg Cramer from Northwestern University’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior), I wanted to go and hug these women. Finally a well-written, easy-too-read article that I agreed with!

First, some general statements from Cassel & Cramer that I think always need repeating:
– “… family members and friends … are still the most frequent perpetrators of child sexual abuse.”

– “… offenses against children … numbers have been diminishing … since the advent of the internet.”

– “… the majority of these sexual solicitations … were not from adult predators, but instead came from other youth.”

– “Often, children who do begin online relationships with an abuser fit a particular profile … ‘a greater tendency for conflict or lack of communication with their parents; high levels of delinquency, including committing assault, vandalism or theft; have a troubled personality due to depression, peer victimization, or a distressing life event.'”

Second, some statements regarding the history of “moral panic” with “the compromised virtue of young girls”

– “… the panic over young girls at risk from communication technologies is not new rhetoric in America. There has been a recurring moral panic throughout history, not just over real threats of technological danger, but also over the compromised virtue of young girls, parental loss of control in the face of a seductive machine, and the debate over whether women can ever be high tech without being in jeopardy.”

– This is later addressed as the scares the telegraph (yes, the telegraph was apparently scary) created; “Media critics of the time desicribed the telegraph as used by ‘talkative women’ who had ‘frivolous electrical conversations’ about inconsequential personal subjects.'” Stories written during telegraph-time were morality tales expressing the opinion that “women’s use of men’s technology would come to no good end.”

– Even the telephone was lambasted for it’s use. “Despite companies’ efforts to direct how th telephone was used, women nevertheless cultivated their own purposes or ‘delinquent activities’ as they were thought of – primarily social interaction.”

– “… the politics of both the Victorian era and the early twentieth century – of rapid modernization and technical advancements – has many parallels with today’s societal response to the advent of the internet.”

– With regards to the definition of moral panic “the media relies on bias, exaggeration and distortion to manufacture news.” If you read the first four quotes I pulled from the article, you can see how the media exaggerates what studies actually say.

Third, tomorrow: “What girls do online.”

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