The Internet Parent
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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

18 Years Old, YouTube Star, and Still Naive

"People forget that I'm a real, normal young girl with a life, feelings and a right to privacy…"

As reported in “Tassie YouTube Star Calls It Quits” by Louisa Hearn in The Age on August 28th, these words were posted by “Emmalina”, an 18-year-old from Australia, who rose to fame on YouTube. She apparently posted cute, funny, mundane, and occasionally raunchy clips of herself and her life.

Imagine her surprise when she discovered that:

"Every day I logged in and discovered more and more cruel spoofs, harassing videos, death and rape threats, incredibly nasty comments and God knows what else.”

And she found that “creepy old men” would post lewd messages on her and other YouTube videos of young women.

This whole story is sad. But it also became serious and dangerous when “someone had hacked into her computer and obtained recent pictures and videos from it that had never been posted online as well as ‘incredibly private files.’” Stalkers discovered her real identity even though she posted and performed under a pseudonym, and circulated her personal information on line. And that, finally, scared her off.

When will YOUR kids realize how dangerous their on-line behavior is?

I’ve spoken to so many parents who say, “Well, she’s 16/17/18 years old. There’s nothing I can do about it now. And she’s old enough to make her own decisions.”

As you can see, even at 18, she’s not. To post videos of yourself on YouTube, turn yourself into an amateur celebrity, and then say, “I’m a real, normal young girl with…a right to privacy” bespeaks a fundamental lack of understanding (and perhaps judgment) about the nature of the Internet.

Internet behavior is public behavior. And the Internet is forever.

No, Emmalina, people don’t forget that you’re a real person. In fact, that’s what makes you so seductive. And they don’t believe you have a right to privacy, because you’ve invited them to share very intimate details about you. You don’t believe it. But those creepy, lewd old men and the aggressive, nasty detractors – they very definitely believe it.

Did you think that only “nice” people would view your videos?

Before you write off your older teenager to the scrapheap of 15 minutes of fame and 15 years of psychological damage, make the effort to educate yourself and your kids.

When will your kids realize how dangerous their on-line behavior is?

When will you talk to them about it?

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Cautionary Tale of Community Building

Pedophiles Know Something Important...

The New York Times published two articles on August 20th and 21st (registration required...for a repost of the first article at CNet, try here) regarding pedophilia and how pedophiles use the Internet to build their own community.

You'll be shocked at the content of these two articles. Shocked and outraged and amazed at the terrible, warped mindset that enables adults to re-interpret their molestations of children as fair, reasonable, and even beneficial, loving behavior.

But I want you to be more than shocked and outraged. I want you to really understand something much more important: Recognize how the Internet can be used to catalyze human behavior, and to reinforce human behavior. And to create community.

When I speak in public, I often relate how the entire range of human behavior, from the most sublime to the most depraved, is available on the Internet. I need to modify that comment:

"The entire range of human behavior, from the most sublime to the most depraved, is available and reinforced on the Internet."

That means we have to get serious about protecting our kids from the negative behavior, and playing our part in reinforcing the positive.

Part of that job relates to our kids ... and I could go on and on about protecting our kids from unsavory characters who encourage and reinforce unsavory behavior.

But more important, I want to highlight how this issue relates to our peers - other parents and community members that are in guardianship roles around our children. WE have to build community around acceptable "parental guidance" and community rules.

Would you have ANY problem saying to your 13-year old,

"You can't go to Jimmy's house because his parents let him get drunk and watch X-rated movies..."?

Of course you wouldn't. But do you even ASK THE QUESTION about whether Jimmy's house has a computer that has no (or pathetically weak) parental controls? When your child asks to go to a friend's house, is that part of the "parental screening" you routinely do? Is it on your parental "check-list" of which neighbors provide a good, safe, and healthy environment, and which do not?

This is the essence of community action. We do this all the time when we trust that our neighbors won't take our kids to an R-rated movie without checking in with us. That's community behavior. We all agree on that standard of guardianship.

We need to adopt a similar standard of guardianship regarding use of the Internet, whether it's surfing, downloading videos, using Chat and Instant Messaging, or just playing on-line games. And we need to be brave enough to stare down our kids -- and our neighbors -- when they don't step up to our expectations.

Read the articles. You'll see that the pedophiles use all kinds of reinforcing mechanisms to help build and solidify their community, and their community standards. They cajole, advise, support, console, and expound on the right-ness of their positions and behaviors.

Do you?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

How to Behave in Public

It's all in how you say it...

When I give presentations to community groups or talk one-on-one with parents, I often get enthusiastic agreement about the need to do something, but frustrated expressions about parents' inability to get in front of their kids with "legitimacy".

Many have said, "My kids just don't listen. They think I don't know anything about the Internet, and they say it's not my business. How do I convince them to pay attention to me?"

Have you felt a similar frustration? You're not alone.

Here's my take at a solution: Approach the problem from familiar ground.

You're the parent, right? (OK, your kids can agree on that.)
And you're responsible for the family. (That gets you a grudging, eye-rolling acknowledgement.)

And in particular, you're responsible for the family's behavior in public. (At this point your kids may sit forward, thinking, "Hmmm...where's Mom/Dad going with this?)

Let's call "public behavior" anything that is seen, heard, or otherwise witnessed by other people in a public place, whether that's at the high-school football game or at the local Starbucks (*I was going to say "malt shop", but honestly, I've never seen one...). When your kids go to the mall, you expect a certain kind of behavior - there are "family rules". When they're at school, you have other expectations, or rules. In fact, whenever your kids are out in public anywhere, they almost automatically abide by family rules. It's surprising, perhaps, and maybe you've never explicitly talked about it this way, but it's true.

Why is this true? It's because their behavior in public affects the family. They know it, because you've already drilled it into them from the time that they were toddlers. The reality is, your kids have long-ago conceded that you have the right to set boundaries on their behavior in public.

So how does this help you manage their Internet behavior? Simple.
Internet behavior is public behavior.

The Internet is the world's largest "small town". Everything that is posted on the Internet, or goes over the Internet, even for just a minute or two, can end up as "gossip", recirculated around and around and around ad nauseum.

And in particular, the kind of content that kids are likely to post or share, both because of what they're doing and with whom they're sharing, is VERY likely to get circulated. Perhaps not world-wide, like the Star Wars Kid exhibiting his light-sabre prowess, but far enough to be public, and often times, to cause problems.

Obviously, MySpace is a VERY public place. It may seem obvious to you that it's not a diary, or even a journal, but, surprisingly, your kids may never really consider just how public it is. Call it "" when you talk to your kids. Inform them that employers are actively searching MySpace pages for background on potential employees. And alert them to the fact that the content they post on MySpace is likely to live long past the date when they've "grown up" and out of their current self-image. What if they had had a MySpace page when they were 5 years younger? What would they have posted? Would they want that information still circulating around?

The upshot is that MySpace is a public place, and their behavior on MySpace is public behavior. It's not just "among a few friends". It gets shared and forwarded and circulated.

The same is true of email and instant messaging. It may seem like a private conversation, but it's not. Because it lasts (it's "persistent" in tech lingo), an otherwise private email can get forwarded, circulated, repeated, etc., etc. Sure, the same can be said for a verbal jibe, but with the Internet, 1) the potential audience is huge, 2) that huge audience is accessible all at once with a mouse click, 3) even if you regret saying or posting something, you can never take it back once it's out there. Another way to say this is:
The Internet is Forever.

Online harrassment, cyber-bullying, and other aggressive, mean-spirited behavior are much worse because of these three factors than the old-fashioned kind ever was. Both the victims and the perpetrators of this kind of abuse are living it "in public".

Ask questions like, "How does that reflect on the family? How does it affect brothers, sisters, and parents? How will the community feel about us?"

These facts mean that YOU as a parent have the right and responsibility to monitor and manage your kids' Internet behavior. Which means putting monitoring, filtering, or logging software on the home computer is a completely legitimate move for you. Insisting that you have a right to their email accounts is fair game too. When you make clear to your kids
that "It's NOT a's NOT private!" you help them avoid the pitfalls of excessive Internet behavior from a perspective they may be more able to understand and appreciate.

Kids have this strange view that as long as their parents don't see it, it's not public. Fom the time they're little, kids mostly get their perspective on "public reaction" to their behavior
from their parents. So they subconsciously behave as if the public is their parents. Unfortunately, that's not true. And the worst kind of impact on individuals and families can come from "non-parents" taking advantage of public but unguarded -- and dangerous -- behavior.

Have the conversation with your kids. Internet behavior is public behavior. And public behavior affects the whole family.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Headline Says Predatory Solicitations down, but...

Don't be fooled - it's not as good as it sounds.

A survey conducted by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Childrent (NCMEC) is being reported widely, with a sadly misleading headline: that the percentage of young people receiving unwanted sexual solicitations, or solicitations from adults, had dropped since a similar study five years ago.

Sounds like good news, right?

Not so fast!
The title of the NCMEC release was actually:

That's a little different than the headlines you're likely seeing.

If you read this AP article (as posted at Business Week Online) carefully, and further if you go to the study itself, you'll note the following facts:
  • Aggressive solicitations -- the ones involving requests for contact by mail, by phone or in person -- remained steady

  • The report found growth in online harassment and unwanted exposure to pornography -- it's now up to 34%, vs. 25% five years ago

  • Even pre-teens are exposed: now 19% vs. 9% five years ago
Nancy Willard, who helps schools develop programs for online safety was quoted as follows:
"the dangers are real but they are not as significant as they have been hyped in recent months."
Hello?! The dangers are indeed real. And the dangers are significant. The "hype" in recent months has been helpful -- a call to action and an awakening of many to a difficult and time-sensitive community issue. In many cases, the actions that have been taken in recent months in response to the hype are, practically speaking, the FIRST and ONLY actions that have been taken in some communities. The mobbing of MySpace by teens is only a year old. To suggest that communities are over-reacting to the hype is at a minimum misleading for policy-makers.

We have a major problem here. That it's not worse is a blessing, but the way the article positions the news is (in my humble opinion) irresponsible. If we said back in 1980 "Drunk driving deaths have not increased since 1975," would that have been a victory? Should policy-makers back then have said, "Well, I guess we're over-reacting..."

Janis Wolak, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and co-author of the study is reported as saying,
"People have fears that these crimes involve offenders and predators who look at these (social-networking) sites and then seek to identify these kids. That's not really what's going on."
Well, I'm not so sure. Whether MySpace is used as the venue for the solicitation, or just the source of the information that leads a predator to a kid in some other venue, that's EXACTLY what's going on. The study just indicates that solicitations from "real-life friends" are occuring in greater abundance.

And perhaps that's MORE troubling. Whether it's because kids are portraying themselves more provocatively, or because those who are soliciting are becoming more aggressive, or because our kids as a whole are becoming ever more (inappropriately) sexualized, the news isn't good. Do you really feel better that your kid is being sexually propositioned by somebody he or she knows?

So my position is simple: Keep your guard up -- raise it higher, in fact, because we haven't even scratched the surface in really addressing the problem. The headline might sound like relief is in sight. But the only relief will come from taking a stand for real, pragmatic, community-wide solutions.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Juneau Schools Take Step in the Right Direction

Unlike DOPA, a Sensible, Measured Approach. But...

The Associated Press reported on July 19th that the Juneau School District has decided to block four online social networking sites, including MySpace, on school property. Into the bin along with MySpace went Xanga, Friendster, and Facebook.

"In examining it, we decided the social networking sites did not have any educational purpose. They were strictly social," said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

Now, THERE'S a sensible attitude. How simple.

And yet, it took nine months for this very practical solution to emerge. That's the frustrating and inexcusable part. We HAVE to get our act together faster than this. Nine months is, like, 5 1/2 Dog Years, and about the same in Internet time. If we wait that long to implement a policy this straight-forward in response to emerging Internet behavior, we'll have sacrificed a whole generation of kids on the alter of institutional torpor.

The article goes on to say, "The district will not be able to police all sites that might become popular..."

I say, "WHY THE HECK NOT?" Tracking and monitoring software is fundamental to virtually every filtering solution out there. This is NOT hard stuff. Parents, you need to demand more. Administrators, you need to kick it up a notch. Community organizations, you need to help raise awareness and make this a community issue. Again, the technology to track where the school computers are going is readily available.

Come on, folks! Let's raise our game. Excuses are for those who are too torpid to protect their kids and their communities.

With DOPA, Congress gets it wrong...AGAIN

House votes to restrict students from MySpace

Sounds like a great headline, and you wouldn't expect me to disagree with the sentiment, given my previous posts and positions on the matter. But DOPA isn't smart legislation.

Congressman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Ohio), who introduced the DOPA act, described social networking sites as "a happy hunting ground for child predators." No argument there.

DOPA also follows CIPA in using the carrot and stick of federal funding to compel public schools and libraries who want the funds to provide a “technology protection measure” to protect “against access by minors without parental authorization to a commercial social networking website or chat room, and informs parents that sexual predators can use these websites and chat rooms to prey on children.” And the Supreme Court has found CIPA's "funding weapon" to be legally acceptable. So far, so good from a constitutionality perspective.

SO...what's wrong with it?

It's in the definition of the sites that should be blocked. Simply put, collaborative networking sites covered by the bill include dangerous locales like MySpace, but also wikis and blogs that are educational and relevant. WikiPedia is a fantastic resource. So are many other collaborative sites that bring in contributions from a broad community of participants. And while you might not think The Internet Parent is among them, it's pretty clear that many blogs can offer pithy, informative, and relevant analysis of current events.

We have a real problem here, no question about it. But passing flawed legislation is not the way to solve it. We need tougher, smarter legal minds (and, frankly, smarter social scientists and mental-health professionals) working this problem.

To be clear, I strongly disagree with Michael Gorman, the President of the American Library Association, when he said in their May 15th press release, "We know that best way to protect children is to teach them to guard their privacy and make wise choices. To this end, libraries across the country offer instruction on safe Internet use." What a bunch of self-serving hooey!

These are kids we're talking about. That's why they have parents, guardians, and the protection of the community/government/state when we feel we have a compelling interest in their safety. Abdicating our responsibility to provide kids with a safe place to grow and learn by saying, "Well, we've trained them to be responsible..." is akin to letting underage kids buy alcohol after taking a drinking-awareness course. Kids are kids. As the responsible adults in the room, we're supposed to be protecting them.

I'm not satisfied that we're doing our best. Oh, no. Not satisfied at all.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Social Networking -- WSJ's Julia Anguin reports...

From the conclusion of Ms. Anguin's July 26, 2006 rather thorough article on social networking sites:

After a week in the world of social networking, I came to some conclusions. Really young kids (say, under 13) probably shouldn't be on any of these sites except possibly Imbee. Slightly older kids might do best on Xanga, where opportunities for strangers to connect are limited but the site doesn't have the strict feeling of Imbee. And Facebook is the best option for high-school and college students -- because ultimately the Internet is safest when used for networking with people you already know, or might know, in real life.

Read the full article if you have time. I'd like to draw your attention to three points:
  1. MySpace is not listed as appropriate by Anguin
  2. Kids under 13 shouldn't be on any of these sites
  3. There's an important difference between Facebook, which is about "real world people", and the anonymous or fantasy-world environment of so many of the other sites.
1) MySpace is the most popular social networking site, and popular sites have gravity - they attract more and more participants. At this time, MySpace can't/doesn't do anything substantial to separate young people from adults. Everything is "the honor system". Other sites make varying efforts. Ms. Anguin notes that representatives from the various providers were unfazed when she admitted faking her identity/age/etc. to get on these sites. MySpace is the ultimate hunting ground for Internet predators. I feel bad for these guys in a way, because they are a victim of their own success. But MySpace, as the leader in the social networking milieu, has an obligation to address the hard problems aggressively. I'm hopeful that they will do so, but not optimistic that they will do so soon. I continue to recommend that MySpace be blocked on home and community computers. Keep your kids AWAY from MySpace.

2) In fact, if your kids are under 18, I'd suggest they not participate in social networking sites, and certainly not those that include adults. The temptations are great, the controls are weak, and the dangers are real. Is it worth it? Having a conversation about social networking sites with your kids is absolutely needed. What are they getting out of these interactions? Is there another way for that need to be satisified? How much is enough? Remember, you're the parent, so you have the privilege of (and the obligation to) set rules and limits.

3) Facebook is "real". MySpace and others blur the line between real and "fantasy". One of the classic aspects of being a teenager is experimenting with identity. That's what makes the mingling of adults and youth together so dangerous. Kids are experimenting with various personas, and adults reinforce the personas that excite and please. It's not hard to imagine what kind of personas are going to get the positive reinforcement in a place like MySpace. If you're not participating, and your kids are, you're letting them fall prey to powerful influences you know nothing about.

Social networking isn't going to go away. It's yet another new invention and use model of the fantastically flexible thing that is the Internet. We have to look closely at the ways social networking is delivered, and choose wisely for ourselves, our communities, and our children.